Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Movie Review: Red Cliff

Red Cliff *** ½
Directed By:
John Woo.
Written By: John Woo & Khan Chan & Cheng Kuo & Heyu Sheng based on the novel by Guanzhong Luo.
Starring: Tony Leung Chiu Wai (Zhou Yu), Takeshi Kaneshiro (Zhuge Liang), Fengyi Zhang (Cao Cao), Chen Chang (Sun Quan), Wei Zhao (Sun Shangxiang), Jun Hu (Zhao Yun), Chiling Lin (Xiao Qiao), Shido Nakamura (Gan Xing), Yong You (Liu Bei), Ba Sen Zha Bu (Guan Yu), Yong Hou (Lu Su).

In Asia, John Woo’s epic Red Cliff was released in two parts spanning nearly 5 hours. For us in North America, the two movies were edited together, jettisoning almost half the total running time, and giving us one large movie. The result is sometimes choppy – we get the feeling that we should probably know more about some of the characters than we actually do – but it is still a wonderful action epic. The final battle sequence – which runs almost 45 minutes – is one of the best of its kind I’ve ever seen on the big screen. Woo has always been an action master, and he has ignored the trendiness of the rapid editing and shaky camera movements for a smoother, more coherent style. By returning to Hong Kong for the first time for the first time since 1992’s Hardboiled (after two very disappointing American films, Windtalkers and Paycheck), Woo has crafted one of his best films. I look forward to the DVD release of Red Cliff so I can catch everything that I missed at the theater.

The movie takes places in 208 CE in China, where the Prime Minister Cao Cao (Fengyi Zhang) has convinced the Emperor to go to war with two “warlords” in the South, Liu Bei (Yong You) and Sun Quan (Chen Chang), all under the guise of quelling “rebels” and uniting China. His real motivations are much more personal, and only become clear much later in the movie. Liu Bei’s army is quickly crushed by Cao Cao, and the remaining soldiers retreat to fight another day. Liu Bei knows that without Sun Quan’s help, Cao Cao will easily take over his land, and then move onto to Sun Quan’s, which he will also quickly win. He sends his military adviser Zhunge Liang (Takeshi Kaneshiro) to meet with Sun Quan, and his closest adviser Zhou Yu (Tony Leung) to try and set up an alliance between the two of the them to fight off Cao Cao. He agrees, after some initial reluctance, and the two new allies agree to make their stand at Red Cliff, where Cao Cao sets up on the other side of the water and plots his attack.

Despite the fact that the movie is over two and half hours long, the pace of the movie is quick. The action sequences at the beginning of the film perhaps rely on special effects a little too heavily, as geysers of blood pour out of the people in battle. Yet Woo’s sequences here, even if they are not as good as his normal sequences, are still better than most action sequences around. When the final battle does come, starting with a roaring sea battle, and continuing on land as the entire world seems to burn around Cao Cao, is masterfully handled. This is one of the best extended battle sequences I have ever seen, as the action also helps to develop the characters further. Even at the height of the action, Woo never loses focus on the story.

It is true that the movie does have to jettison a lot of character development that was probably in the longer version of the film, because the plot is so complex that it needs to be moved forward constantly in every scene. What Woo does though is not abandon character development completely, but focuses on fewer characters, particularly the relationship between Leung’s Zhou Yu and Kaneshrio’s Zhunge Liang. There is a certain element of homoeroticism between these two, particularly in a scene where the two perform a duet on their instruments, and in the films final shot where their faces are so close together you swear they are about to kiss. There is something undeniably feminine about Zhunge Liang, brought out in the sequence when everyone else goes to battle, and he stands on a cliff and says that he has done all he can. Why isn’t he fighting? He stays behind with the women.
Cao Cao is another interesting character, and although he is the villain of the movie, there is a certain aspect of Shakespearian tragedy to his character – perhaps Richard III or Macbeth. He is not only brought down by his hubris, but also by love. Fengyi Zhang’s performance is the film’s finest, a man who initially comes off as wholly evil, who turns out to be more complex then we thought he was.

With Red Cliff, John Woo has reestablished himself as one of the premiere action directors working today. Perhaps the two part version of this film is his masterpiece. I won’t know until I see it. But the version he has released into North America theaters is one of the best action movies of the year.

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