For today’s post, I’ve decided to take a little break from the mini-barrage of movies coming out from the woodwork every week since the Hollywood summer “blockbuster” season started. Now I’ve always wanted to do a special category of posts dedicated to movies that you – my two dear readers – probably missed or were unaware that they existed in the first place anyway. In fact, my very FIRST review on this blog touched on a movie that not too many people heard about (the Japanese action-adventure “13 Assassins”) – which is a shame since it was the SHIT! It even made its way to my “Top 10 best Movies of 2011” list, in case you were wondering. So in my attempt to add some variety of this blog of mine, I’ll be writing on a non-Hollywood movie that, probably due to circumstance, poor marketing or slow torrenting speeds (*AHEM*), was unfairly overlooked.
This movie is called “Red Cliff”. Now before I continue, there are a few points I have to mention: On the DVD and Blu-Ray two-disc sets released by Magnolia Entertainment, the title on the cover reads “Red Cliff: International Version: Part 1 & Part 2: Destiny Lies in the Wind”. While the latter part of the title sounds like (and is, in fact) a tagline (and a subtle hint at a particular turning point in the story which I won’t reveal), I’ll simply call the entire movie “Red Cliff” to avoid confusion. Secondly, I’ll be talking about the complete version of the movie and not the ungratefully-trimmed Western version of the same movie (entitled “Battle of Red Cliff”). I have seen bits of this version on cable television, and I can tell you: it really doesn’t hold a fucking torch to the original film. Besides, there’s no subtitles or even a shitty English dub for me to understand – or care – about what’s going on.
Anyhoo, “Red Cliff” is an epic Chinese historical war film based on the Battle of Red Cliffs, a decisive battle fought at the end of the Han Dynasty (from 208 to 209 AD) and prior to the beginning of the Three Kingdoms period. It should be noted that the events between these two turning points in Chinese history were chronicled in the highly-acclaimed historical novel “Romance of the Three Kingdoms”. Die-hard gamers should be familiar with these events thanks to games like “Dynasty Warriors”, “Kessen II” and the long-running “Romance of the Three Kingdoms” series. “Red Cliff” is directed by the legendary John Woo, director of Chinese shoot-em-up masterpieces like “A Better Tomorrow”, “The Killer” and “Hard-Boiled” (one of my all-time favourite movies) and American action films like “Broken Arrow”, “Face/Off” (his best American film to date) and“Mission: Impossible II”. Younger readers who associate modern action movies with names like Quentin Tarantino, Robert Rodriguez and Michael Bay may wonder what’s the big deal with John Woo. Well, it’s like this. Without Woo, there wouldn’t be a Tarantino, Rodriguez or Bay. With his strategically-choreographed action set-pieces (SIDE NOTE: he usually compared his action sequences to Hollywood movie dance numbers), an arsenal of blood, bullets and explosions at his disposal and a dash of stylistic flair, John Woo literally turned on-screen action into a fucking ARTFORM! Where’d you think they got the idea to give Keanu Reeves two guns to blast away at security guards in the first “Matrix” movie? John Woo. ‘Nuff said. Moving along….
“Red Cliff” marked John Woo’s long-awaited return to Asian cinema after emigrating to the United States following the release of “Hard-Boiled” in 1992. He admitted in an interview that the film was 50% factual, as he chose to alter the story by using modern feelings (and his own) for a more worldly acceptance. With a total running time of 280 minutes (yeah, it’s REALLY long), and a budget of US$80 million (making it the most expensive Asian-financed movie to date), John Woo’s epic was released in two parts: “Red Cliff I” released in July 2008 and “Red Cliff II” released in January 2009. Interestingly, the first part of the film broke the box office record held previously in mainland China by James Cameron’s 1997 Oscar-winning magnum opus “Titanic”. Which is a good thing, when you really look at it.
Long intro aside, let’s begin! (SPOILER ALERT: This first review has lots of Chinese names and references to Chinese movies, so please try to keep up)
RED CLIFF: INTERNATIONAL VERSION (Parts 1 & 2) (2008 / 2009) – “Red Cliff” begins with Prime Minister/Chancellor Cao Cao (Zhang Fengyi) declaring war on the Southern warlords Sun Quan (Chang Chen – a.k.a. the love interest to Zhang Ziyi’s character in the 2000 Oscar-winning wuxia film “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” – remember that shit?! ) and Liu Bei (You Yong) who he accuses of rebellion against the Han Dynasty. Cao Cao’s forces battle Liu Bei’s at the Jing Province (note: this battle is known historically as the Battle of Changban). Though Liu Bei’s men fought valiantly in the battle, especially Liu’s sworn brothers Guan Yu (Batdorj-in Baasanjab – AWESOME NAME) and Zhang Fei (Zang Jinsheng), and military general Zhao Yun (Hu Jun) who each kicks serious ASS when they arrive on-screen, they were outnumbered by Cao Cao’s army and forced to retreat. Liu Bei’s highly-intelligent advisor/military strategist Zhuge Liang (Takeshi Kaneshiro – best known for his performance in the 2004 wuxia film “House of Flying Daggers”) suggests an alliance with Sun Quan. If they defeat Cao Cao’s forces, Cao Cao will have no choice but to retreat back North, thereby allowing Liu Bei to control the West and Sun Quan the South. After warning Sun Quan of Cao Cao’s upcoming arrival, Zhuge heads over to Red Cliffs where Sun’s army camp is based. While there, he meets Sun’s viceroy Zhou Yu (played by the LEGENDARY Tony Leung, star of a shitload of popular Chinese movies including 1994’s “Chungking Express”, 2000’s “In the Mood for Love” (GREAT MOVIE…..I’m just saying), 2002’s “Infernal Affairs” (famously remade by Martin Scorsese into the Oscar-winning crime drama “The Departed”), 2004’s “Hero” (my all-time favourite wuxia film….I’m also just saying) and this year’s “The Grandmasters”, a martial arts film I’m dying to see), alongside Liu’s sister Sun Shangxiang (Zhao Wei of “Shaolin Soccer” fame) and Zhou Yu’s wife Xiaoqiao (played by the beautiful Lin Chi-ling). Sun Quan joins forces with Liu Bei, and Zhuge Liang and Zhou Yu proceed to formulate a plan to defeat Cao Cao and his army. Meanwhile, Cao Cao acquires from a recently-surrendered army a large fleet of battleships which he plans to use in a naval attack on Red Cliffs. And that’s just the beginning….
Viewing “Red Cliff” for the second time after three years (yeah, THAT long….I know, right?), I realized how the structure of the entire film resembles that of “Hard-Boiled”. As you may or may not know, “Hard-Boiled” contains three major action set-pieces (with some minor action scenes placed in-between) placed strategically in the first, second and third acts of the film, with each set-piece increasing in length and scope. The same goes for “Red Cliff”: there’s two action sequences in the opening and closing of “Red Cliff I” and a grandiose action set-piece in the third act of “Red Cliff II”. If you combined both chapters, these set-pieces would be in the first, second and third acts of the entire story. If you’re a true John Woo fan like yours truly, you’ll also recognize certain visual references to “Hard-Boiled”. One major example is an early scene where Zhao Yun fights enemy soldiers with a baby boy slung over his back which alludes to a famous scene in “Hard-Boiled” where Chow Yun-Fat (who was originally slated to play Zhou Yu, but pulled out as shooting started) shot a number of bad guys while holding a baby boy in his arm.
Director John Woo himself stated that his favourite movies were Akira Kurosawa’s “Seven Samurai” and David Lean’s “Lawrence of Arabia”, and his passion for these classics shows in “Red Cliff”. Both chapters of this film are epic in scope, incredible in visuals and gripping in story. The acting is superb. Tony Leung (Zhou Yu) and Takeshi Kaneshiro (Zhuge), who’re technically the main leads in the movie, give excellent performances, and the supporting cast (from actor Hu Jun who plays the courageous Zhao Yun to actress Lin Chi-ling – in her first feature film role, by the way – who plays the supportive wife of Zhou Yu) do a fine job. Cao Cao (played splendidly by Zhang Fengyi) is an intriguing character, as he doesn’t come across as your typical scowling, sniveling, psychotic bad guy. He smiles, he laughs, he drinks tea, he compliments the beauty of women and so on, but he never forgets his mission, and won’t hesitate to get rid of any hindrance in accomplishing his mission. Though the pace is admittedly slow at times (since it’s an epic and all that), the story in “Red Cliff” is always compelling. The cinematography is gorgeous, the music by Japanese composer Taro Iwashiro is fantastic, and the special effects provided by The Orphanage are top-notch. There’s a brilliantly-crafted and fucking AWESOME long shot nearing the end of “Red Cliff I” where a dove flies from Red Cliff to the enemy camp that’s WORTH sitting through the two hours and fifteen minutes (or so) leading up to it (or checking out on YouTube if you’re that curious….or lazy). And on the subject of The Orphanage, it’s such a shame that the California-based visual effects studio is no more. Such a shame indeed.
Finally, what’s a John Woo movie review without at least mentioning the action? “Red Cliff” delivers grand-scale battle sequences that are, arguably, on par with ANY and EVERY movie battle sequence you can think of from the past two decades…. and better than nearly all of them! Yes, even the Battle of Helm’s Deep from “The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers”! No shit! John Woo takes decades of skill in choreographing and shooting great action sequences and applies them to this movie. The battle sequences themselves are so well-executed, well-shot and well-edited that you will find yourself thoroughly engaged and entertained throughout every heart-pounding minute of them. Like I mentioned earlier, the characters of Guan Yu, Zhang Fei and Zhao Yun kick serious ass when they first appear in the film. Even though they’re side characters and aren’t the main focus in the story (think of them as Legolas, Gimli and – to a certain extent, Aragorn from “The Lord of the Rings Trilogy”), when they show up to fight, they bring their A-game to the table! Zhao Yun plays the Legolas character in a few scenes where he skillfully dispatches his enemies while executing some SWEET horse mount stunts in the process. The stalwart Zhang Fei is the Gimli character in the bunch as the guy doesn’t even use a weapon. He just runs towards his enemies, like an American football player, and knocks the shit out of anyone who gets in his way! Last, but not least, Guan Yu is clearly the Aragorn in “Red Cliff”. With his strength, speed (he also runs towards his enemies, but does it more warrior-like) and awesome skill with the guan dao, he is, by far, the most bad-ass of the three. And he shows absolutely no fear. Now ask yourself: do you really want to fuck with this dude?
I think not.
And for you action junkies who love your John Woo movies with a side order of explosions, have no fear: you’ll be provided with enough explosions in the final battle sequence to satisfy your taste buds. Doggie bags will be provided by management.
“Red Cliff” is surely one of the finest of all epic movies. It truly represents a return to form for John Woo, and it will stand out as both his most ambitious work to date and, through the test of time, his magnum opus. It’s one of my personal favourite movies, and for that reason alone, you should dedicate at least 4 1/2 hours of your life and watch this movie from start to end. Make sure to watch the international version and not that shortened “Battle of Red Cliff” bullshit that I mentioned earlier. If you’re a fan of John Woo movies, you will enjoy the shit out of this one! If you’re knowledgeable in ancient Chinese history, you’ll find much to enjoy here. And if you’re the type of person who thinks that John Woo’s only good for stylized shootouts and heroic bloodshed, then prepare to be surprised…hell, amazed….by this movie.
Need more convincing? Check out the official trailer. You can thank me later.
MY RATING – 4 1/2 out of 5 stars (“Definitely see this movie”).