Red Cliff

Last night’s viewing:

[youtube: 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.

By Mark Newton

Born in 1981, live in the UK. I write about strange things.

13 replies on “Red Cliff”

I strongly recommend seeing the original 2 part film. I have not seen the cut down “western” version, only the original, and it is spectacular. I can’t imagine what they could have cut out of it. A cut down version strikes me as an abomination. Not that I feel strongly about this, or anything.

It also helps to watch it with someone who has read The Romance of the Three Kingdoms, which my son has, but that isn’t required.

Hi Kate – I think much of the cutting happened at the start of the film; the western version had a bit of narration at the start to set the scene, so I guess a lot of the build up to the main battle was kept to a minimum.

But I’ll probably track down the two-parter in the future.

Woo said he implimented into this film all the things he had learned from making movies in Hollywood, one of which is that people want strong female characters in blockbusters. While I don’t disagree, I have no idea what Hollywood films he has been watching.

Ah yes I know this period of Chinese history very well indeed!

The 3 Kingdoms era before the land was united under the Han Dynasty – the founders of it being descendants from the Wei Kingdom (The enemy that Wu and Shu united against in this film).

Red Cliff (or Chi Bi in its original form) was a turning point for history. I did very much like this film regardless of the historical inaccuracies in which some people died earlier than in reality (like Gan Ning)… but that’s just dramatic licence! 🙂

Brilliant casting for Zhuge Liang, the Shu tactician, even if the actor was Japanese (Takeshi Kaneshiro)!

I have to agree, though, that having the film cut down by over and hour and a half was a let down… so the film did lose a bit of rhythm.

The Romance of the 3 Kingdom isn’t really that necessary due to it being a somewhat fictional spin on the era, but not entirely, written in the 14th Century by Luo Guanzhong.

The battle scenes, strategies, narratives, etc. in this film really bring this period of history alive.

Sorry if I have gone on a little flaunting my knowledge haha

I have to both agree and disagree with Andy.

Takeshi Kaneshiro is definitely brilliant as Zhuge Liang, who my son (the one who has read the Romance of the 3 Kingdoms, which is indeed fiction) calls the ultimate Mary Sue character. However, the actor is actually Taiwanese-Okinawan.

Paul: heh. Exactly re: women in Hollywood blockbusters.

Ack, sorry- but I’m going to have to disagree with Andy as well (though on a separate topic to Takeshi Kaneshiro’s heritage).

If I’ve got my history correct, the Han Dynasty actually precedes the Three Kingdoms Period and is in decline during the events depicted in ‘Red Cliff’ (with Cao Cao controlling most/all court and state affairs through Emperor Xian). Cao Cao’s son- Cao Pi- deposed the last (official) Han emperor which officially fragmented the land (as Liu Bei of Shu and Sun Quan of Wu made their own claims to rule). The land was later united by the Jin Dynasty founded by the Sima clan- former retainers in the Cao/Wei court- who forced the abdication of Cao Huan of Wei and conquered Wu (Shu had already fallen).

Uh, not that I’m an authority- just an avid reader with an interest in the time period. I welcome correction if I’ve misinterpreted any of the relevant timelines/events.

(*coughs* Apologies, Mark- first time commenting here and I’m quibbling about history).

Comments are closed.