Red Cliff, Part One

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History has never been more grand and more romanticised than in the first part of John Woo’s magnificent Three Kingdoms saga.

“How could we ever hope to fight this war?”

I’ve always been a sucker for big, epic war films. Regardless of the setting – be it space opera, high fantasy or real life – it will always fill me with awe to watch hundreds or thousands of people all come together in one breathtaking melee. As technology gets better and better at placing CGI characters seamlessly into live action, these battles can only get bigger and better – just see last year’s Avengers: Endgame. But back in 2008, John Woo, having returned from a decade abroad released one of a two-parter film: spanning over four and a half hours Red Cliff was, and continues to remain, his most ambitious film, featuring an all-star cast and a truly epic scale.

Based in part on a section of the novel Romance of the Three Kingdoms by Luo Guanzhong, itself inspired by the real-life events in 3rd century China, Red Cliff’s plot centres on the advancement of Prime Minister of Han – Cao Cao (Zhang Fengyi) – towards the southern kingdoms, and the coalition formed between Wu and Shu, led by Liu Bei (You Young) and Sun Quan (Chang Chen) respectively. Despite its name, the first part of Red Cliff doesn’t actually get to the titular battle. While they do make their way there by the film’s end, it’s the journey that’s the fun. The film starts with an invasion of Wu territory and we’re quickly introduced to most of the major players: Liu Bei and his three generals Zhao Yun (Hu Jun), Guan Yu (Batdorj-in Baasanjab), and Zhang Fei (Zang Jinsheng) as well as the MVP of the entire film Zhuge Liang (Takeshi Kaneshiro), whose tactical genius has transcended history and entered legend.

It’s when they finally meet with Viceroy Zhou Yu (Tony Leung) that things really start to kick into gear. At last the fellowship is formed ready to fight the invading armies and … wait, fellowship? Yeah. It’s probably safe to say that the wide shots of expansive armies and seemingly infinite ships were inspired in part by Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy. Frankly, it’s not a bad place to draw from because while Red Cliff isn’t a fantasy, it does portray its subject matter almost like that. Much like many of John Woo’s other action films, this story exists in a sort of heightened reality where anything can happen without your disbelief needing too much suspension.

Woo has mentioned in interviews that his telling of the events at Red Cliff aren’t to be taken as a history lesson, and I doubt the novel describes some of the more ludicrous moments featured (he said, having never actually read the book). People familiar with the video game series Dynasty Warriors will no doubt find some similarities between its one-man-army gameplay and some of the battles Liu Bei’s generals find themselves in, and it wouldn’t be an unfair comparison. Watching Guan Yu destroy half a dozen lances with his bare hands in not-quite wuxia fight scenes is hardly history, but it’s damn entertaining.

He never goes too deep into wuxia territory, and only allows for swordplay acrobatics when it’s purely necessary, such as showcasing why certain characters have gone down as historical legends. Instead, he keeps most of the action clean and realistic – or at least as realistic as this sort of sweeping epic allows. And it’s these moments that remind us of who’s behind the camera. Despite all of the grandiose and the man’s obvious Hollywood influences, his years of experience in making over-the-top but intimate fights proves to be a great asset in making the large army clashes and spectacular strategies more about individuals, while remaining grand enough to keep in the spirit of the genre.

In Red Cliff, Woo is able to showcase his signature style of pseudo-realistic action while staying faithful and respectful to the historical and literary origins of his movie. Of course Zhou Yu is an expert marksman here, and why wouldn’t Zhige Liang succeed in every trick and strategy? It’s a tricky combination to pull off without feeling strained and cheap, but the time period, the mythic aspect and the story he’s telling seems perfectly suited to it. That said, it doesn’t always work, and sometimes the CGI and matte paintings swallow the story and the scene, but at least most of the effects still hold up. And while distracting at times, they do serve a purpose in showing us the threat of Cao Cao’s infinite ships or the untouched beauty of Southern China. Again, it never feels 100% real but it never was meant to be.

Those who are more in tune with the real-life characters and events might have something to say about the way Cao Cao is treated here. While he’s always been something of a controversial figure, it’s hard to fully buy into the idea that his war is entirely for the sake of Zhou Yu’s wife Xiao Qiao (Lin Chi-ling), even if it is mentioned in the novel. He is often played as villainous, but often with more layers. Zhang, while good, has to play a more one-dimensional and occasionally hammy character. Perhaps a cooler portrayal of more level-headed tactical genius (like he’s described in film) might have worked. It’s a testament to Zhang that with a different actor it might not have worked so well – and this is true of just about everyone who is pitch perfectly cast – but Zhang Fengyi is able to bring out layers to Cao Cao that might not have been present otherwise.

But I’ve brought up a lot of real-life people and epic historical fiction, and if it seems a bit … much, well it’s understandable. However it’s worth bearing in mind that no knowledge of any of what I said is needed to enjoy Red Cliff. At its core, it’s a very fun time filled with gorgeous set pieces. It’s big, and one might need a bit of effort at first to remember who’s who but Woo is able to tell the story – massive scope and all – without exposition feeling too heavy or obvious. The battles are balanced out with enough personal conflict to keep the story moving and the film interesting. Of the two, this one is probably more action than story, but that’s largely due to the scale of it. There’s more travel, more variation in battle and a tonne of character introductions and some, like Sun Quan don’t get a lot to do. But it’s all there to move the pieces into place for the second part: with Cao Cao’s ships on the horizon, and the two other nations now allied, the battle for Red Cliff is about to begin. And it looks to be great.

Verdict: The first part of John Woo’s historical war film might not immediately sound appealing to newcomers, but its straightforward plot, hugely likeable leads and top-notch action sequences make it accessible and fun for just about everyone.

 

Red Cliff part 1 (2008)
Also known as: 赤壁 Chi Bi
China, Hong Kong, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan

Director: John Woo
Writers: Kuo Cheng, Sheng Heyu, Chan Khan, John Woo, Luo Guanzhong (novel)

CAST

Tony Leung – Zhou Yu
Takeshi Kaneshiro – Zhuge Liang
Zhang Fengyi – Cao Cao
Chang Chen – Sun Quan
Zhao Wei – Sun Shangxiang
Hu Jun – Zhao Yun
You Yong – Liu Bei
Lin Chi-ling – Xiao Qiao
Shido Nakamura – Gan Ning
Hou Yong – Lu Su
Tong Dawei – Sun Shucai
Batdorj-in Baasanjab – Guan Yu
Zang Jinsheng – Zhang Fei
Song Jia – Lady Li
Zhang Shan – Huang Gai
Wang Hui – Cao Hong
Xie Gang – Hua Tuo
Shi Xiaohong – Jiang Gan
Xu Fengnian – Zhang Liao
Guo Chao – Yue Jin
Hu Xiaoguang – Xiahou Jun
Cui Yugui – Xu Chu
Jiang Tong – Li Tong
Ma Jing – Wei Ben
Yizhen – Cai Mao
Jia Hongwei – Zhang Yun
Zhao Chengshun – Xun You
Wang Zaolai – Cheng Yu
Wang Ning – Emperor Xian of Han
Wang Qingxiang – Kong Rong
Li Hong – Lady Gan
He Yin – Lady Mi
Wang Yuzhang – Cheng Pu
Menghe Wuliji – Guan Ping
Sun Xinyu – Cowherd boy
Ma Jingwu – Old fisherman
Ye Hua – Tiantian
Chen Changhai – Qin Song
Zhang Yi – Zhang Zhao
Wu Qi – Gu Yong
He Feng – Man Tun
Li Hongchen – Sick soldier

 

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