I’ve been talking up this movie on Twitter, and enough people requested a review that I figured I’d better write one. Let’s start with the disclaimer that I love Chinese historicals–they don’t even have to be kung fu movies, though that’s obviously a huge part of the genre. Other Chinese movies like Raise the Red Lantern and The Last Emperor are stunning even without the martial arts, and they’ve got a soft spot in my heart; I love the culture, the costumes, the colors, the whole bit. So, now you know.
Red Cliff is a war movie–not a kung fu movie, but a war movie–set in the early Three Kingdoms period that will be instantly recognizable to anybody who’s ever played the Dynasty Warriors computer games. The movie is definitely based on the story, though, and not the games, and I make the distinction between war movie and kung fu movie to illustrate the difference: there is plenty of fighting in Red Cliff, but it’s not the “Sauron swings his mace and twenty guys go flying” kind of fights you see in the game, nor is it the acrobatic “show” fighting you see in movies by Jackie Chan or Yuen Wo Ping. The focus is not on the individuals but on the war as a whole, and we see just as many scenes of preparation and strategy as we do of fighting. One of the lead characters, Kongming, is in fact not a fighter at all but a strategist, and his efforts to recruit allies, gather resources, and plan the war behind the scenes are just as vital and compelling as any of the actual battles. An early mention of The Art of War by Sun Tzu lets you know that this movie recognizes the full nature of war: the killing is done by soldiers, but the war as a whole is fought by nobles, advisors, engineers, servants, and more. One of the most compelling scenes shows a woman performing a tea ceremony, and in a movie full of warlords and soldiers and killers she manages to have more individual effect, and a stronger “in your face” moment, than any other character. That said, don’t assume that the movie has no action; this is war, and there’s plenty of opportunity for warriors to ply their trade. The naval assault near is the end was especially thrilling.
The movie begins with the empire falling apart; the bloodthirsty prime minister Cao Cao runs rampant through the land, enforcing not the weak emperor’s will but his own. Beleaguered rebel leader Liu Bei is losing ground every day–he has to split his forces between fending off Cao Cao and protecting huge groups of refugees, and it’s simply too much for his dwindling army to handle alone. His advisor Kongming suggests an alliance with southern leader Sun Quan and his brilliant viceroy Zhou Yu, who have thus far stayed out of the war completely. This, of course, is just the opportunity Cao Cao has been looking for: if Sun Quan joins the rebels he will have a legal excuse to destroy him, leaving Cao Cao the only military power left in the empire, perfectly poised to usurp the throne itself. Thus the war is begun, centered on Zhou Yu’s southern fortress of Red Cliff on the banks of the Yangtze river.
The movie was originally release in two parts, each a massive epic well over two hours. They were cut and condensed into a single version of about three hours, which is the version I watched; the full version looks like it fills in some motivational holes, but I was happy with the version I watched (especially since I could stream it over Netflix; the two-part version is available on disk only, which would have taken me well over a week to watch when you add in the shipping time). The movies are directed by John Woo, back in top form after some goof-ups like Mission Impossible 2, and he shows himself more than capable of handling a massive historical epic. I’d love to see some more from him, especially if he wants to continue the Three Kingdoms storyline. The actors were also excellent, especially Takeshi Kaneshiro (one of the two leads from House of Flying Daggers) and Tony Leung (best known to Americans as Broken Sword from Jet Li’s movie Hero).
If you love Chinese cinema like I do, well, you’ve probably already seen this. If you like it a little, or if you like historical epics like Braveheart or Gladiator, Red Cliff will more than satisfy.