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.


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!


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.

35 thoughts on “Rental Pick: Red Cliff (2008)

  1. Wow! High rating and great review! This has been in my Netflix queue for a while but for some reason I’ve continually passed over it. Your review REALLY sparks my interest. Thanks Ruth!

    1. It really is a beautiful film but NOT a style-over-substance as there’s quite a bit of depth in the story even in this truncated version. Hope you give this a shot Keith, I absolutely loved it!

  2. Great review here Ruth. So you finally got around to this one then? I remember you talking about it. I’ve only seen the first hour of the long version. It was on tv one night but it was too late for me to satu and see it all. It looked great though.

    1. Yeah I finally got around to seeing this and boy, I don’t know what took me so long! My Indo friends actually told me about it a couple of years ago, he saw the original 4-hour versions w/out the subtitles (they could speak Chinese) and raved about it. I wish I had seen it on the big screen, but it only opened for like a week over here, bummer!

      If you like military dramas that’s more about the strategies as opposed to the battle scenes (thought there are certainly a lot of that as well), this is a movie for you. I’m not even a war film fan and I was very impressed!

    1. Well I’m sure glad to be the one introducing it to you Chris 😀 My knowledge of Asian cinema is shocking as well, esp since I grew up in the region, ahah. But I’m glad I gave this one a shot, I fell in love with it practically.

  3. I’m going to watch the full version when I ever find the time to do so….this movie has been in my “To Watch” stack of DVD’s for ages!

      1. Ruth, no I meant its streaming for free from Amazon, I didn’t see it available on netflix streaming when I checked the can i stream it app. I’ve got hulu, amazon and netflix streaming but no more cable.

        1. Oh cool!! Even better then. Hope you enjoy this Adam. I just ordered the full-length Blu-ray, that’s how much I love this film 😀

  4. I saw this a year ago and it sure is a beautiful movie from a visual standpoint. I did think it was a overlong as far as run time goes but definitely one of the better movies from John Woo.

    1. I actually don’t feel it’s long, as the story kept me engaged. Plus visually it’s so striking that I was ooh-aahing the whole time.

  5. Ted S.

    As I said before I sort of gave up on John Woo, but I’ll give this one a try soon. Woo is like a lot of directors who are getting older, they tend either repeat themselves or over indulge.

    1. I guess so, but I think this is a return to form for Woo. I actually don’t feel he overindulged either despite the extensive running time. The story is quite complex and gripping. Plus he chose such great actors for this one.

    1. Yes you should Josh! I love war films that’s not all about one battle scene after another, this one has intriguing characters and visually it’s such a spectacle, too.

  6. Funnily enough, my own review on this film is coming up in a couple of week, Ruth, and you’ve touched on a lot of what i found appealing in this film. You really do need to see the full-length version (currently out on Region Free BluRay, folks) because the shorter version sells the story short (even if you liked it, Ruth!). A gloriously shot, well acted, terrific story that deserves to be seen by as many Western eyes as possible, in the long-form version of course….

    great review, Ruth…. I’m linking here.

    1. Wow, that’s cool Rodney, great minds 😀 My hubby is actually ordering the full-length version on Blu-ray and I’ll be watching those for sure. Yes I wish more people outside of Asia saw that one, it’s rare to see such a beautifully-shot epic that also has an excellent story, plot and acting. Thanks in advance for linking here 😀

  7. Very pleased to see you enjoyed it so much. Hopefully some of your readers will now seek it out. I was worried that Woo had lost his magic after a very hit and miss (mostly miss) 15 years in Hollywood, but this epic restored my faith in him.

    No it’s not exactly a faithful adaptation, nor would I call it an all-time masterpiece either, but it’s everything one would expect from John Woo. Beautiful, stylish, and full of heroic bloodshed.

    Also, you really must give the full length version a watch sometime. It’s long, but the additional material provides important detail to the overall story..

    1. Hello Bonjour! Yeah it’s nice to see Woo’s still got his mojo. It restored my faith in him too. I’m ordering the full-length version in BD, can’t wait to see that one.

  8. Oh cool, I didn’t know this is on Netflix Instant now. Sounds like a great film. Believe it or not, I haven’t seen anything from John Woo — he’s one of my biggest blind spots. I have Hard Boiled queued up soon for my project, but I might have to give this one a shot after that.

    1. I REALLY want to see Hard Boiled but it’s not available on streaming 😦 I want to see more Tony Leung films now and that’s one of them, plus it’s also got Chow Yun Fat, one of my fave Asian actors. Btw, you should give Face/Off a shot Eric, I love Nic Cage in that one, both he and Travolta played a dual role.

  9. great review Ruth and nice to see you reviewing am Asian movie 😉
    I havent seen this one. There are too many Mandarin war movie to track down….there are often good but really…too many. I havent seen those two actors in a while. Maybe I will watch it after reading your review 🙂

  10. Pingback: » Movie Review – Red Cliff (Uncut International Version) Fernby Films

  11. Pingback: World Cinema Series 2013 – Wrap up and Winner Announcement | Beauty is a Sleeping Cat

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