Notes On A Film: Red Cliff

I like the films of John Woo; even though his last Hollywood films were woeful (Windtalkers, Paycheck, Mission: Impossible II), there is still the deranged madness of Hard Target, Broken Arrow and the marvellous Face/Off. But it was the Hong Kong ‘heroic bloodshed’ action films that, while dated, I still love and first made the connection. The Killer is perhaps his best but it was Hard Boiled that brought him to my attention. And so things come full circle: Woo has gone back to China and Tony Leung, star of Hard Boiled (with Chow Yun-Fat, who originally down to play the same character in this film), is star of Red Cliff.

Based on the events of the Battle of Red Cliffs in Chinese history, this is a film that was originally a four-hour epic in China but released as a 150-minute film in the West. The story is more familiar to Chinese audiences, but it doesn’t matter to Western audiences: the story is explained and the storytelling is clear so you know what’s going on. There are elements that are similar to Woo themes of old: two characters with similar traits developing friendship under adversity, loyalty, honour, doing the right thing. It is epic: the battle scenes at the end are the equivalent of 2,000-year-old Chinese Saving Private Ryan fight scenes, showing the horror and bravery in equal amounts. The reviews all talked of ‘a return to form’ for Woo – I prefer to think of it as the form never left, he just didn’t have the right material to enthuse his passions and skills. In Red Cliff, he definitely has: there is a sense of something bigger and more important behind it (the battle is a turning point in Chinese history) and yet he is able to bring out the smaller moments of the main characters interacting, helped by the excellent acting, especially by Leung and Takeshi Kaneshiro, who develop a real rapport.

The extremely condensed plot: the Prime Minister (portrayed as the bad guy) coerces the Emperor to allow him to eliminate warlords by convincing him they’re rebels. The warlords of the southern and eastern provinces form an uneasy alliance to battle against the Prime Minister’s army. The two chief advisor/strategists to the warlords, Zhou Yu (Leung) and Zhuge Liang (Kaneshiro), form strategies to counter his army: they defeat the Prime Minister’s vanguard army, but it then becomes a battle of navies at Red Cliff, with the enemy camps on opposing sides of the water, in preparation for the final battle.

There are some excellent strategies developed in the story (such as the plan to collect 100,000 arrows from the enemy), although the lead characters are aware of the results of their actions. The fights scenes brutal and epic, there was an excellent piece of misdirection that I didn’t see coming (something rare when you’ve watched a lot of films) but I was still happy about the reveal and the fact that it was a surprise, and this was the first film I can recall where the outcome of a battle was predicated upon meteorology (although I found it a little difficult to believe that their weather predicting could be so accurate: they could state it to the hour? We can’t even get the weather right for the next day here in the UK).

This was a really good film, enjoyable and well done; John Woo showed that he can still direct a very impressive epic that was spectacular yet intimate, modern yet old-fashioned. Here’s to hoping he does more films like this.

Rating: DAVE

[See here for my film rating system]

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