(No longer in theaters)
Terence Chang, Sanping Han, John Woo
Nov 18, 2009
Back in china after nearly two decades making Hollywood movies, John Woo tries in the military epic Red Cliff to bring off the kind of artsy martial arts (martial-artsy?) period picture that Zhang Yimou (Hero, House of Flying Daggers) does peerlessly. But he’ll always be a vulgarian. His action is cluttered, his compositions have no texture, and he loves him some tacky slow motion. That said, all 148 minutes of Red Cliff are very enjoyable. The scale is huge. The armada of warships might be obvious CGI, but there are thousands of real men onscreen assembling themselves into giant pincers and hacking and slashing away at one another. (Chinese extras work cheap.) Better yet, this is one of the few war films to focus on the art and science of battle—on stratagems, countermoves, counter-counter-moves, and on the game of getting inside one’s enemy’s head. As in chess, tactics and psychology are inextricable.
The setting is a.d. 208, when a ruthless powermonger named Cao Cao has bullied the Han emperor into letting him invade the unwarlike West and South. In addition to being a bloodthirsty monster, the scoundrel covets the beauteous wife (Chiling Lin) of East Wu viceroy Zhou Yu (Tony Leung, whose first appearance gets a star buildup that would have embarrassed Elvis). The forging of alliances— as Zhou and an emissary named Zhuge Liang (Takeshi Kaneshiro) measure each other’s character by jamming together on period instruments—is great fun, and Woo crosscuts between Cao Cao hatching plots and Zhou Yu supernaturally reading his mind from afar. Any war picture in which the heroine stalls the villain with a quiet, painstaking tea ceremony until the wind shifts direction and the good guys can firebomb the bad guys into oblivion is too ineffably Zen not to love.
Even though it’s abridged from the two-part, five-hour original, Red Cliff is galactically huge—encompassing an enormous amount of characters and featuring some of the most elaborately staged battle scenes you’re likely to see.