Red Cliff, Part Two

1-horz-vertIn Part 2, the battle for Red Cliff focuses and offers more drama, combat and plenty of flames.

“One day, we will face each other on the battlefield.”


Right, so where were we?

When last we left our heroes, the alliance of Liu Bei’s Shu and Sun Quan’s Wu had arrived ayt Red Cliff, to intercept northern warlord Cao Cao’s invasion. Part two immediately picks up where this ended: Cao Cao (Zhang Fengyi) has finally arrived at Red Cliff and made camp on the opposite shore. But when many of his soldiers begin to die from typhoid, he sees it as an opportunity to demoralise the other side, sending some of his sickest men across the river. As the Wu-Shu forces begin to drop, Liu Bei (You Yong) and choose to retreat, leaving only Zhige Liang (Takeshi Kaneshiro), Zhou Yu (Tony Leung) and Sun Quan (Chang Chen).

Meanwhile, Sun Quan’s sister, Princess Sun Shangxiang (Zhao Wei) has chosen to infiltrate Cao Cao’s camp, in order to gain valuable information. There, she befriends a goofy cuju player-turned-general Sun Shucai (Tong Dawei). As the inevitable battle draws near and the Shu side severely outgunned, it’s up to Zhuge Liang and Zhou Yu to procure more weapons, destabilise the Han side and formulate a plot that will guarantee a victory against Cao Cao.

If part one was a collection of grand wuxia-style battles and shows of military might, the second half mostly slows things down (at least in the beginning), and focuses a lot more on the relationships between characters. Now that we know who everyone is and what the stakes are, part two can jump right in to battle strategy and exploring character dynamics, and as a result – despite its 140-minute runtime – it ends up feeling a lot more concise and straightforward than the previous film.

As a large chunk of our protagonists are not in the majority of the film, the story feels extra lean and the extra time allows for some of the background players to shine. Sun Shangxiang, for example, is given a bigger part as she gathers intel and sketches the enemy camp, before she and her warrior maids go off to fight. Similarly, Zhou Yu’s wife Xiao Qiao (Lin Chi-ling) does more than help birth horses this time, and has a vital role to play in delaying Cao Cao’s army – a pivotal moment in the conflict.

These moments of characterisation and friendship – between Shangxiang and Shucai, Zhuge Liang and Zhou Yu, and all of Liu Bei’s generals – are some of the strongest elements in a film loaded with great set pieces. In fact, the combination of the two aspects are what made early John Woo films so popular. Sure the scale is upped here, but the basics remain the same. These bonds shared between the main characters are reminiscent of many of his heroic bloodshed movies, where friends sacrifice themselves to protect their brethren. Woo is unfortunately (more or less) bound to the events as they happened in history – or at the very least in Luo Guanzhong’s retelling of history – so he can’t just go about killing off every character he chooses. Nevertheless, the connection between each lord and their generals, as well as the honour shared amongst them, is as present as any other of his movies. Maybe even more.

These scenes are important to set up the final conflict: Woo shows us yet again in at least two different occasions the troubles that the Wu-Shu alliance face, from the unfavourable wind direction to their complete lack of arrows, and the scenes where Zhuge Liang comes up with solution after solution (including one competition with his new BFF, the latter of which is convinced he can trick Cao Cao into eliminate two of his top generals, which he executes in spectacular fashion) are hugely satisfying and make for a wonderfully-paced build-up to the movie’s crescendo.

And what a finale it is. Once the titular battle for Red Cliff begins, all bets are off. Sure, anyone familiar with either history or the basic convention of story will get the idea of where it’s ultimately going, but it isn’t really the point. With so many people fighting, so many strategies and a skirmish that lasts until the following morning Woo is able to keep us in the dark about who will survive. Despite the night-time setting, Woo is able to keep the action flowing masterfully, and the ever-shifting dynamics of the war are conveyed in a way that keeps the chaos of the war front and centre, but never so much so that it leaves the audience confused and with a headache.

Waves of soldiers, flames, boats and catapults collide in one of the finest historical epics I’ve seen in a very long time. Its historical obscurity in the West means it probably will never be as big as it deserves, but that’s not taking away just how much of an achievement it is, especially with Woo straight out of making Paycheck and Windtalkers. It has a few flaws, from curious editing – especially a strange wipe effect where scenes are sliced away by swords, to the still somewhat problematic portrayal of Cao Cao as a man so obsessed with one woman he’s willing to risk the entire war for her. But the gripes are minor for a film loaded with excellent performances, gorgeous cinematography and – to be expected – some truly stunning action. It’s a historical epic that’s bound to go down in history.

Verdict: Combining Woo’s trademark character moments and explosions, Red Cliff part 2 is a satisfying, explosive end to a truly epic duology.

Overall entertainment: 9/10
Violence: 7/10
Sex: 1/10
Best gambit: The plot to get the 100,000 arrows never fails to amaze
Football: I had no idea the Chinese had the earliest form. But I’m not surprised.
Wagers: So … would Zhuge Liang have had to kill himself? For real?
Pit: We hardly knew ya


Red Cliff part 2 (2009)
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)



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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