Much the way the Indian film industry has kept the musical alive long after Hollywood stopped caring, Chinese filmmakers have been keeping alive the large scale swordplay epics that Hollywood’s abandoned in favor of superhero-fare and movies based on toy-lines. The Chinese Wuxia genre, characterized by beautifully photographed fight scenes set in ancient China, has been one of the most popular genres of world cinema. Some of the most popular examples of this genre are Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Zhang Yimou’s Hero and The House of Flying Daggers. I’ve got to say that I’m a sucker for these movies; they’re action movies that have some real ambition being made in a time when Hollywood action movies seem to be made by people who don’t really seem to take their craft seriously. I’m not sure if John Woo’s Red Cliff strictly qualifies as a Wuxia movie, but it has all the elements that have made me dig the genre to begin with.
Set at the end of the Han Dynasty (around 200 C.E.), this film tells the story of the legendary Battle of Red Cliff. Ostensibly this is about a civil war between the Prime Minister Cao Cao (Zhang Fengyi), whose taken power through brute force, and a pair of southern warlords named Liu Bei (You Yong) and Sun Quan (Chang Chen). The movie opens with Liu Bei trying to defend civilian refugees from the oncoming army of Cao Cao, he’s able to escape but with massive casualties including his own wife. Knowing that he cannot beat Cao Cao alone, Liu Bei sends his chief strategist Zhuge Liang (Takeshi Kaneshiro) to convince Sun Quan into an alliance. Eventually Sun Quan agrees to the alliance and the forces decide to hold fort at the City of Red Cliff and prepare as Cao Caos massive naval fleet slowly approaches.
There is of course a lot more to this; in fact I didn’t even bring up Tony Leung’s character, Zhou Yu, who’s a warrior who takes part in a lot of the action scenes. The film is not meant to be a historically accurate take on the battle; it’s more like the recounting of an exaggerated legend. It also isn’t exactly a complex study of the politics at hand, it’s basically a battle good guys who are really good and bad guys who are really bad. This is old fashioned storytelling in many ways, which is just sort of something that has to be accepted in order to enjoy the movie. While this material isn’t exactly Shakespeare, there also isn’t anything about it that’s irritating, I don’t mind an action movie story that exists just to string together action scenes as long as it isn’t actively bad, and the story here is mostly decent.
What’s really important here are the battle scenes which are some of the best of their kind since Ridley Scott’s Kingdom of Heaven. Woo does need to uses some middling CGI for the wide shots of massive armies, which are not really the movie’s fortes, but for a lot of its duration the movie uses real people for its action scenes and during the medium shots the action is very strong. The fighting is very stylized with warriors able to engage in elaborate combat in the midst of the battlefield. That said, the fighting is not quite as stylized as it is in some of these movies like Hero, in which the characters are able to engage in extra-super-human moves like bating arrows out of the air with swords and you won’t see much wire-work either. This is a war movie first and a martial arts film second, there are scenes where great warriors will pair off and fight mano-e-mano, but for the most part this is about fights between large armies. Also, because the Chinese had access to gunpowder in their ancient warfare, some stuff blows up really good towards the end.
The film was released in two parts in China, and the first part’s release was made to coincide with the 2008 Olympics so as to show the world the country’s power in filmmaking. In this sense they’ve mostly succeeded, the action and production values in this are every bit as good as anything coming out of Hollywood. For its international release the film’s two parts have been spliced together into a single film, consequently, more than two hours have been cut from the film. These cuts are not invisible, there’s an English language voice over at the beginning that sets up the conflict, and captions have been added to help audiences keep the characters straight. The movie does feel rushed and the cuts may explain the simplicity of some of these characters, but I think the story mostly holds up. I hope to someday see the two part original version which will inevitably be available on DVD and Blu-Ray, but this is a movie that should be seen at least once in theaters and I understand the problems with bringing the original version to western theaters. This version will have to do.
This is the first movie which director John Woo has made in China since he left for Hollywood since his 1992 magnum opus Hard Boiled. I don’t think Woo’s best Hollywood works are really as different from his Hong Kong movies as some people think they are, in some ways I think he was the victim of the higher standards people seem to have for American action movies than they do for the exotic Asian ones. Still, his last couple of projects in Hollywood were undeniably poor, and he clearly was never allowed to make anything on this scale by the studio system. This is a return to form. I’m not going to call this a perfect movie, and if Hollywood had been making something other than half-assed CGI-fest as of late I might not have been as enthusiastic about this, but the movie delivers everything you’d expect out of it.
***1/2 out of Four