We celebrated October with scary movies each Tuesday, but I’d forgotten to cue up the DVD, so one night began with previews. All the chatter subsided, and everyone stared at a war between ancient Chinese factions. Units of footmen formed tortoise-shell defenses, luring the cavalry into a trap. Heroes threw back six foes at a time while their brooding masters pored over maps, wrote poetry, and studied cloud formations.
When the preview ended, everyone turned to me. “You want to see that one instead?” I asked, knowing I had it in the vault.
Did they ever.
After a decade spent making movies in Hollywood, John Woo returned to his native land. There he undertook a film version of one of the famous battles of China's Three Kingdoms period.
On this blog, I’ve used the term “kung fu” pretty loosely, but this time I need to point out that this film is a war epic. While there are some impressive wirework stunts in Red Cliff, the film is far more concerned with the leaders of the opposing camps, the flaws and virtues of their characters, and the particular strategies they use to take advantage of their foes’ mistakes. That said, once the action begins, it will kick your ass all the way up to the fiery finale.
The movie opens by establishing the influence Chancellor Cao Cao (Zhang Fengyi) has over the young emperor. Seizing power over the military, he turns his forces against the lords who have resisted his control. Soon after, the heroes Guan Yu, Zhang Fei, and Zhao Yun display superhuman fighting prowess in a retreat against the imperial army. Any one of those heroes could be the star of a film, but here they are the supporting cast.
The learned and brilliant strategist Zhuge Liang (Takeshi Kaneshiro) proposes an alliance between his master, Liu Bei, and the reluctant warlord Sun Quan (Chang Chen), who comes around after a lesson learned during a tiger hunt. Quan places Zhang Yun (Tony Leung Chiu-wai) in charge of the combined forces, and the unified rebels prepare to meet Cao Cao’s vastly larger force, including an enormous navy.
The battles that follow reflect the personalities of the faction leaders, each clash somehow topping the previous for audacious tactics. The drama among the allies is equally gripping.. In a desperate hour, Zhou Yu and Zhuge Liange wager each can achieve a seemingly impossible task—assassinating the opposing admirals, and acquiring 100,000 arrows—and the stakes are their lives.
Men are not the only combatants in Red Cliff. Both Zhou’s wife, Xiao Qiao (Lin Chi-ling) and Sun’s sister, Sun Shangxiang (Zhao Wei) play pivotal roles in the conflict. The beauteous Xiao surrenders herself to the enemy in a ploy to delay the lustful Cao Cao, while tomboyish Sun Shangxiang serves as a spy in the enemy camp, where she bonds with a dim but sweet-hearted enemy soldier.
Such a brief description can’t do justice to a 280-minute film. The 148-minute North American cut is said to be quite good, but I wouldn’t want to miss any of the subplots or deliberately paced character development leading up to the spectacular fights.