John Woo’s retelling of a key episode in Chinese history is an epic in the classic sense, balancing its grand battles with a human element.
John Woo’s Red Cliff (2008/2009) is a grand historical epic, but the two-part, 280-minute film was edited drastically for its Western theatrical release. Fortunately, the two-disc Blu-Ray release presents both parts in their entirety, allowing a full appreciation of the scope of Woo’s vision. I watched it for free at 123 Movies by the way.
Woo Reinvents A Classic Tale
Set in the year 208, during the Han Dynasty, Red Cliff tells the story of how the ambitious Prime Minister, Cao Cao (Zhang Fengyi) initiated an aggressive military campaign against two southern warlords he claimed posed a threat to the Emperor: Liu Bei (You Yong) and Sun Quan (Chang Chen).
This episode in Chinese history has received many fictionalized treatments throughout the centuries, notably as a part of Luo Guanzhong’s novel Romance of the Three Kingdoms and the Dynasty Warriors video game series. But Woo stated in an interview with David Stratton that he didn’t use the novel as a blueprint, as he wanted to give the story “a modern feeling”.
A War Epic with a Human Heart
Woo accomplishes that task by focusing on the personal motivations behind the war, and in particular the friendship that develops between Liu Bei’s tactician, Zhuge Liang (Takeshi Kaneshiro) and Zhou Yu (Tony Leung), the leader of Sun Quan’s military.
Their association begins when Zhuge Liang visits Sun Quan’s kingdom of Wu to negotiate an alliance. After Liu Bei’s forces were defeated by Cao Cao at Changban, in part because of Liu Bei’s humanitarian insistence on protecting the refugees traveling with them, Zhuge Liang concluded that only a strong alliance could defeat the Prime Minister’s military might.
In Zhou Yu, he finds a kindred spirit whose tactical brilliance and fighting skill are equaled by his empathy for others and his appreciation of the arts. The highlight of their negotiations is a scene where the two men play the guquin (a traditional Chinese string instrument), and their music is at once highly competitive and symbolic of their growing mutual respect.
Superb Lead Performances from Tony Leung and Takeshi Kaneshiro
Leung originally turned down the role of Zhuge Liang, and in retrospect that was a fortunate decision, as he proves perfectly suited to the role of Zhou Yu. He portrays the general as a strong, determined man with a gentle heart, and that emotional core is especially apparent in his scenes with his wife Xiao Qiao (Lin Chi-ling).
Kaneshiro is equally strong as Zhuge Liang, a man who can remain calm and collected even when his life depends on getting 100,000 arrows for the army in three days. His method of getting those arrows is highly inventive, and results in one of the best scenes in the film’s second part.
Naturally, the two heroes need a strong villain to counterbalance their efforts. Fengyi makes Cao Cao a clever, ruthless politician, promising his troops three years free of taxes for their loyalty even as he mercilessly executes anyone he suspects of disloyalty.
While ancient war was a largely male environment, Woo makes room for two strong female characters. In addition to Xiao Qiao, who proves crucial in buying time for the alliance late in the film, there’s Sun Quan’s sister, Sun Shang Xiang (Zhao Wei), who takes a more direct approach, engaging in military espionage and developing an unexpected emotional attachment to an enemy officer.
A Strong Balance Between Quiet Moments and Action
Woo proves adept at balancing the film’s quiet moments with the epic battle sequences, though the pacing is slightly better in the first half than in the second. Paying such close attention to the emotional ties between the characters and the motivations for their actions yields great dividends when the fighting gets underway.
And those battle scenes are spectacular. The first half culminates with a ground standoff where Zhuge Liang employs his tortoise strategy to confound Cao Cao, and the way Woo films their formations has to be seen to be believed. It’s a breathtaking sequence full of reversals of fortune and thrilling fights.
But the battle at Red Cliff itself in the second half manages to top it, by adding a spectacular naval sequence where Zhou Yu and Zhuge Liang employ fire to demolish Cao Cao’s ships. The way Woo builds the tension leading up to this sequence is masterful, making the battle all the more satisfying.
Within these large-scale conflicts, Woo’s skill in depicting one-on-one fighting is still apparent. It’s especially evident in the scenes focusing on Liu Bei’s legendary generals Guan Yu (Basen Zhabu), Zhang Fei (Zanf Jinsheng), and Zhao Yun (Hu Jun), who accomplish near-superhuman feats on the battlefield.
The cinematography and editing are equally skillful, and throughout, Woo’s work calls to mind the war epics of Stanley Kubrick and Akira Kurosawa. There aren’t many current films that can match that level of mastery, making the full version of Red Cliff something special.