Rental Pick: Red Cliff (2008)

RedCliff_posterThough I’ve just blogged about Asian auteurs recently, I figure I should watch one of the Chinese films I’ve been meaning to see in a while. Glad to see that John Woo’s Red Cliff is on Netflix streaming.

Despite not really being a fan of far films, I was quite engrossed in this film which centers on the battle on a region called Red Cliff. The one I saw here is the 148-minute western version, truncated from 280-minute, two-part versions of the original that was released in Asia. Apparently, to appeal to western audiences, they trimmed much of the historical details of the story whilst still keeping the essence of the events set at the end of the Han Dynasty in ancient China.

The story is loosely based on the 14th-century Chinese novel Romance of the Three Kingdoms. A megalomaniac Prime Minster Cao Cao somehow convinced his inexperienced Emperor Han to allow him to conquer the kingdoms of Xu in the est and East Wu in the south. In a way it’s kind of a David vs Goliath story not unlike how the Spartans fought the Persians in 300, but with a bigger army and more um, clothes on them.

Some of the battle scenes remind me of those in The Lord of the Rings trilogy in terms of scale. Though normally I don’t care about war films, I was quite engrossed in all the war strategies depicted here. The dialog is brisk but quick-witted, even poetic at times, combined with visual grandeur and exhilarating action set pieces. This film is absolutely beautiful to look at, the long shots of the naval armada and a legions of army in a tortoise formation are incredibly majestic. Yes there’s extensive CGI involved but some of the battle scenes still look pretty organic and gritty. Much of battlefield acrobatics and exquisite slo-mo scenes of Mr. Leung & co. in battle that are exciting to watch.

Woo’s trademark kinetic action style are put to good use here, including scenes where the hero wield two weapons—two swords in this case—whilst going ballistic (literally). There’s of course the flying dove that’s never absent from his movies. I must say he’s rather indulgent filming a lone dove flying across the ocean, but it’s so beautifully-shot that I don’t mind it.

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The film starred the who’s who of Asian cinema, particularly Tony Leung (Zhou Yu) and Takeshi Kaneshiro (Zhuge Liang) who play shrewd military strategists. Both are wonderful to watch for their Zen-like grace and astute discernment, it doesn’t hurt that both are easy on the eyes as well. Zhang Fengyi was quite good as well as the villain Cao Cao, he’s power-hungry but Fengyi did not portray him as a repulsive monster. Leung is absolutely fantastic here, as the viceroy Zhou Yu, he is by far my favorite character in the film. One particular scene with a young flute player during war training depicts him as the ideal military leader: razor-sharp with acute sense, but wise and even-tempered. There is a sweet love story between him and Chiling Lin as his elegantly beautiful wife, and it’s nice to see that women also have key roles in the story instead of simply being pretty ornaments.

What I like most is the meticulous war strategies depicted here, the generals and war-experts must have been part meteorologists in the way they could use the weather, particularly in regards to the wind, into account in their plans of attack. Despite the 2.5 hours running time, I was not bored even for a minute. My hubby and I are even considering watching the 4-hour version and all the behind-the-scene featurettes. There’s more historical context in the full uncut edition, such as the background and motivation behind Zhuge Liang’s plan to obtain 100,000 arrows. That arrow scene is quite humorous and thrilling to watch, definitely one of the highlights!

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It’s certainly John Woo‘s return to form after making a few American flops (Windtalkers, Paycheck), and his ambitious project seem to have paid off. At the time of its release and perhaps to this day, it’s the most expensive Asian-financed film to date with an $80-million budget. The film ended up being a huge hit in China and even surpassed the domestic box office of Titanic in that region.

If you’re into war films, I highly recommend this one. It astutely depicts that ancient Chinese military philosophy The Art of War that all warfare is based on deception. Its epic scale and visual prowess—down to the weaponry, lavish costumes and set pieces— made me wish I had seen this one on the big screen.


4.5 out of 5 reels


Thoughts on this film? Let’s hear it in the comments.