Last night’s viewing:[youtube:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z3qIXQCHf94 500]
Imagine a game of chess in which each move produces either a spectacular battle scene or a set of pithy conversations. Roll that back into ancient China, make it look phenomenally pretty, and that’s pretty much what John Woo’s Red Cliff is all about.
It’s a war film set in 208 AD at the Battle of Red Cliffs, a legendary event in Chinese history (at the end of the Han Dynasty). For the build up, Woo cuts rapidly between the various warring factions of the Chinese Empire. What transpires is this: two armies must form an allegiance in order to prevent a full on assault from northern warlord and Prime Minister Cao Cao and his 800,000-strong army, who is acting on behalf of a young Emperor. This defensive alliance is formed by a group of regional leaders including Liu Bei, Sun Quan as well as the brilliant strategist, Kaneshiro, who really is brains of the operation, and a charming character to boot.
The bulk of the western release focusses on the action at Red Cliffs, and jumps back and forth from the POV of the attackers and the defenders, juxtaposing clever thoughts and strategy, developing personal relationships, showing off lots of pretty ancient Chinese culture, providing lots of philosophical dialogue, and soon that chess-like essence really makes itself clear. There are some spectacular set pieces, some wonderfully choreographed fight scenes, and the visuals use the environment and culture in the most impressive manner. But it is what it is, and doesn’t pretend to be anything more thoughtful than it needs to be. This is solid, heroic stuff, but one with brains and where women aren’t simple plot coupons for male leads to use on their way to saving the world.
It’s worth saying, whilst watching this I was under the impression that the original film was cut somewhat – in fact it was trimmed from 280 minutes down to 148, which makes for a little uneasy viewing on occasion (the pace can leap massively from peaceful narrative, to ferocious combat action, and it is not always as smooth as it ought to be).
Still, all in all, it’s a nice balance of Eastern prettiness and choppy-fiery action.