(Magnet) Tony Leung, Takeshi Kaneshiro, Chang Chen, Zhao Wei, Hu Jun, Zhang Fenyi, Lin Chiling, Shido Nakamura, You Yong, Ba Sen Zha Bu, Hou Yong, Philip Hersh (voice), Jiang Tong, Song Jia, Tong Dawei. Directed by John Woo
Chinese history is a rich and varied one, which sadly remains largely unknown in the West. One of the great events in the history of China is the Battle of Red Cliff, which took place in 209 AD during the Han Dynasty.
Cao Cao (Fenyi) is the ruthless and ambitious Prime Minister of the Han Dynasty. He has quelled rebel warlords in Northern China, successfully reuniting territory that had been fractured under years of ineffectual rule. He is the de facto ruler of China; even the Emperor quails before him. He has turned his sights to the South and two warlords who he feels are a threat to his agenda – the usurpation of the thrown for himself.
Liu Bei (Yu Yong) has been spectacularly unsuccessful as a warlord, losing battle after battle. Sun Quan is an ambitious but inexperienced ruler whose advisors have constantly counseled against battle, leading to a wide perception that Sun Quan is a coward. Cao Cao is unimpressed with either; he snorts derisively “When a loser joins forces with a coward, what can be accomplished?” at the thought of the alliance between the two squabbling Southerners.
In truth, the alliance between the two falls into his plans perfectly, giving him the excuse to invade the South. In a skirmish against Liu Bei, Liu Bei’s army is decimated, although in fairness he leaves them on the battlefield long enough to protect the civilian population of the area to flee, at the cost of his wife who dies during the conflict. Bei, knowing he cannot stand against the vast army of Cao Cao (which is said to number over 800,000) alone, sends his military strategist Zhuge Liang (Kaneshiro) to entreat Sun Quan to join forces. As expected, Sun Quan’s ministers are advising him to surrender. Liang however decides on a different route of persuasion; he wins the heart and mind of Zhou Yu (Leung), the mightiest warrior in the South and something of a mentor to Sun Quan. Zhou Yu is also married to Xiao Qiao (Chiling), a renowned beauty whom Cao Cao has had a crush on for many years.
Zhuge Liang and Zhou Yu bond over a mutual love of music and the alliance is joined. The two armies encamp at a place called Red Cliff near the Yangtze River. In the meantime, Cao Cao’s flotilla approaches. Destiny awaits the victor and China one way or another will never be the same.
Director John Woo made his reputation directing action films in Hong Kong back in the ‘80s and early ‘90s before departing for a celebrated career in Hollywood, which includes such titles as Mission: Impossible II, Face Off and Broken Arrow. He has rarely attempted period dramas before and certainly none on this scale, but he pulls it off like he’s channeling Cecil B. deMille. The most expensive movie produced in Asia to date, it has been a monster hit in China, released a la Kill Bill in two parts.
The battle sequences are absolutely amazing. Soldiers march in formations with shields interlocked to protect from arrows which rain down from the sky in a downpour of death. Fire is used in spectacular fashion, rolling across ships and men in waves. Visually, this is eye candy of the highest order.
The friendship of Zhou Yu and Zhuge Liang are at the center of the story and Kaneshiro and Leung have chemistry that works – call it “bromistry” if you like. They seem to genuinely like each other and that shows onscreen. Chiling makes a marvelous Helen of Troy sort, beautiful, alluring and graceful – I can see where Cao Cao might invade for her sake (as is implied).
Western audiences may have difficulty keeping all the characters straight – there are a whole lot of them and their names can be similar. Woo says he based the movie on the more historically accurate “Records of Three Kingdoms” (a document written in the 3rd century chronicling events beginning with the battle) rather than the popular 14th century Chinese novel “Romance of the Three Kingdoms” which is more familiar to the Chinese people and helped make the battle a major part of Chinese folklore, not unlike how Homer’s “Odyssey” did the same for the siege of Troy in the West.
The Western release was culled down from nearly four and a half hours of the two Chinese volumes into a two and a half hour epic. I started to get restless with about 20 minutes to go in the movie; it is a little long trying to set the stage for the events but quite frankly once it gets into the battle scenes (which are wall to wall starting with the second act), the movie hums along at a blistering pace.
Those who miss movies like Ben-Hur and Lawrence of Arabia will be sated with this. Beautifully shot with the Chinese eye for gracefulness and color, the movie appeals on a great many levels. There are some very humorous sequences (such as Zhuge Liang’s ingenious method of acquiring arrows) and some romantic ones between Zhou Yu and Xiao Qiao. Still, this is the kind of movie that will thrill you even if you have a distaste for subtitles.
REASONS TO GO: This is the kind of epic that is rarely made these days. The battle sequences are nothing short of astonishing and reason enough to see the movie by themselves. Leung and Kaneshiro make appealing leads.
REASONS TO STAY: It can be difficult to tell one character apart from another given Western unfamiliarity with Chinese names and the fairly large set of major characters. The movie is about 20 minutes too long.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s a good deal of battlefield bloodiness.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Chinese Army lent over 100,000 soldiers to work as extras in the battle scenes.
HOME OR THEATER: While this might be hard to find in theaters, do seek it out – given the epic scale it deserves the presentation that a big screen affords.
FINAL RATING: 8/10