Red Cliff marks John Woo's return to his Asian filmmaking roots following his stint in Hollywood, and with a budget of US$80 million, many have touted this as a blockbuster epic that Asians would be proud of, especially one coming from Woo. A dream project of his, Red Cliff undoubtedly garnered plenty of buzz since Day One, and its casting has been nothing short of a musical chairs game, with actors revolving in and out of the door, especially when Chow Yun-Fat and Tony Leung Chiu-Wai had announced their departure from the project, only for the latter to return to fill in Chow's shoes, and Takeshi Kaneshiro to take over the void left by Leung.
Given the result of the movie, I'd dare say that whatever Chow's reasons were to leave the project, he probably would be kicking his own rear now. Red Cliff is nothing short of spectacular and worthy to be ranked up there as far as epic war movies based on a historical context are concerned. Adapting not from the much beloved novel Romance of the Three Kingdoms, but from more grounded historical accounts, this marks a very ambitious adaptation as it is based on a tumultuous time in China's feuding warlords history, set just about and after the downfall of the Han dynasty, where warlords vie for power and China being split into three large kingdoms led by Cao Cao (played by Zhang Fengyi), Sun Quan (Chang Chen) and Liu Bei (Yong You). Since it would be near impossible to condense the richness of the entire period into a series of films, Red Cliff focuses on one of the turning points and popular milestones, which provides ample opportunity for action sequences, and for wily battle strategies and plans to get formulated and executed.
John Woo's admiration for General Zhao Yun's qualities cannot be more obvious when it is he who opens the first battle proper, with a very familiar character episode involving the rescue of the infant son (and future lord) of his master Liu Bei, thereby sealing his reputation of valor, earning admiration even from enemy Cao Cao. Fans of Liu Bei's camp will undoubtedly cheer at the appearances of his sworn brothers General Guan Yu (who is worshipped as a deity until this very day, and remains one of my favourite characters besides Zhao Yun) and General Zhang Fei, whose gruffness translates to instant war-ready prowess. While Liu's army is clearly routed in a military loss, it explained the dilemma of Liu's leadership. One which is based on sincerity, a quality which persuaded his chief military strategist and genius all round Zhuge Liang (Takeshi Kaneshiro) to join his cause, but one which lacked military strength in numbers, despite having some of the best generals of the time under his leadership.
Which of course Cao Cao admires and probably is envious about, given his superior strength in numbers came from surrendering armies, whose loyalty remains questionable, and of course with individual generals who can't surpass the abilities of those from Liu. Playing the king like a puppet and having him issue a decree for permission to pursue Liu Bei who has fled southwards, he sets his sights also on warlord Sun Quan, for a more personal reason akin to the story of Helen of Troy. Zhuge Liang, knowing their current weakness, seeks an alliance between the armies of Liu and Sun Quan, and this forms most of the first half, where he had to play envoy to cajole and persuade, especially in convincing Sun Quan's most trusted advisor Zhou Yu (Tony Leung) that war is inevitable and they should form a win-win partnership.
And here's where great minds think alike, and watching both Zhou Yu and Zhuge Liang do a friendly pit against each other is nothing short of amazing, where so little says so much. It helps of course that both Tony Leung and Takeshi Kaneshiro have been paired up as leading men on screen before, in Wong Kar-wai's Chungking Express and in Andrew Lau and Alan Mak's Confession of Pain too, lending some much established and credible chemistry as men who share admiration in each other's ability, especially when Zhou Yu seemed to have a fairer balance between fighting skill and intellect. With one side having highly disciplined soldiers with good morale, and the other having renowned generals to be leaders, it doesn't take a genius to realize the advantages gained in fending off a common enemy together.
The fight sequences were pure spectacle, with old school wire work combined with technological wizardry to showcase some large scale battle sequences at a macro level, or to highlight the immense naval numbers that Cao Cao brings to battle. Formations and strategies take centerstage in a first major confrontation on land, where one gets to see John Woo's interpretation of Zhuge Liang's "ba-gua" (8 stratagems) strategy, made more entertaining through the continuation of what we have already seen in each general's fighting ability, each given a unique style befitting the characters in folklore, such as Guan Yu and his Guan Dao (Green Dragon Crescent Blade) and Zhao Yun (Hu Jun) and his spear. There's the usual bellowing cape and slow motion in Woo's signature style, but these were kept to a minimum, as are the pigeons (though they do make an appearance, but serving some purpose).
Perhaps it is the success of the fight sequences that had left some lamenting for more, but bear in mind this is just but the first half of the movie, setting things up. The major war sequences of course are left in the second movie which we will get to see come early next year. Like The Matrix Reloaded and Revolutions, expect the next movie to go on an all out assault. I felt that already is a fair balance of drama and action here, especially when this installment has to cover a broad base given numerous characters, which should provide fans (of Three Kingdoms) something to cheer about. Chang Chen provides his Sun Quan with enough self-doubt, and in a small story arc has to seek his inner confidence ala King Leonidas in 300, while model Lin Chiling's much touted debut movie appearance, was limited to just a few scenes of lovey-dovey moments, which unfortunately for audiences in Singapore, her sex scene with Tony Leung got edited out in order for distributors to get a PG rating to put more bums on seats.
I had wondered how Tony Leung would have faired as Zhuge Liang instead of Kaneshiro, but felt that the musical chairs casting somehow became a blessing in disguise. Kaneshiro's good looks might have made some doubt his ability to play the smartest man alive during the era, but he did an excellent job in bringing out the humility and self-deprecation of the man whose never flashy nor overconfident of his abilities, and one who swears his talents to his lord Liu Bei. Tony Leung on the other hand brought about a fine balance of brains and brawn to the Zhou Yu character, whom I suspect in Woo's version, would be credited with much success for his part in Red Cliff, rather than the accolades all going to Zhuge Liang. After you see the reliable Tony Leung in this role, you'll know for sure that Chow Yun-Fatt could probably never had brought the kind of gravitas Leung brought to the role.
Forget about the pretender of a Three Kingdoms movie in Ressurection of the Dragon. John Woo's Red Cliff is the real deal, even though this is just the first installment of a two parter meant for an Asian release, while those in the Western World would have to settle for a shortened, combined movie, one which I suspect Vicky Zhao's role as Princess Sun ShangXiang would probably be reduced, along with various instances where scenes were allowed to indulge to showcase some CGI used in an unprecedented manner for an Asian movie. To address the confusion of different run time from different publications, I did a clocking of the movie, and it runs a total of 2 hours and 24 minutes credit to credit (but that's the Singapore edited version).
Red Cliff is hands down highly recommended, not only for those familiar with the story (and who're likely to find fault with some minor tweaks to supporting characters in involvement and names), but makes a great entry point to the rich stories of brotherhood, valor, bravery which sits snugly in any John Woo movie, and I guess to reintroduce a whole new generation to the era of the warring states, especially to our friends in the West. John Woo had given plenty of respect to the source material, and his meticulous treatment had shone through some of the slower scenes, such as taking time to highlight the peacetime roles of the various generals of the Liu Bei camp. This movie, even though its half of a movie, goes into my books as a contender for movie of the year, and I can't wait to continue where it left off!
1. Guan Yu Profile
2. Zhao Yun Profile
3. Zhuge Liang Profile
4. Records of Three Kingdoms
5. Romance of the Three Kingdoms
6. Battle of Red Cliffs