Woo hoo for John Woo! I am such a geek for Asian cinema and when I heard the legendary Woo’s first historical epic Red Cliff was finally getting a North American release I couldn’t wait to see it. A monster success in Asia the pared-down from 5-hour into two-hour version make its way into New York City theaters first on November 18th then Los Angeles and beyond on November 20th. The question is will an ancient tale of a bloody Chinese battle resonate with Western audiences?
Ambitious and power-drunk General Cao Cao (highly regarded actor Zhang Fengyi) has convinced the young, impressionable Han Emperor that two unruly warlords Liu Bei (You Young) and Sun Quan (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon’s thief Chang Chen) need to be brought under heel. And of course the addition of their land would be highly beneficial to the general. After dealing Liu Bei a crushing defeat Cao Cao turns his attention to the junior ruler, Sun Quan. Anticipating the coming attack, Liu Bei’s military strategist Zhuge Liang (Takeshi Kaneshiro) travels to speak with Sun Quan about an alliance. But first he must convince Sun Quan’s trusted friend, the warrior Zhou Yu (international superstar Tony Leung) of the wisdom of uniting against seemingly insurmountable odds. Together they may just vanquish the tyrant and win freedom and peace for all China.
There is a timeless quality to Red Cliff. It’s Troy, it’s Braveheart, it’s the Battle of Agincourt, it’s any time the few fight with passion and intelligence against their oppressors. The fact that the setting is China shouldn’t be a deterrent for North American audiences. Having to read subtitles however may be an issue for those less adventurous folks. I know that there were subtexts and situations that were uniquely Chinese in nature, things that a Chinese person would readily identify as significant. Those things went blissfully over my head and did not interfere with my enjoyment or understanding of the broader story.
There are a couple iconic John Woo touches in the movie: flocks of doves and a “Mexican standoff” type moment, (see: The Killer). But generally Woo stands back and lets the characters and story be the focal point. The ever classy Tony Leung is perfect at the heroic and honorable Zhou Yu. Red Cliff is a long-overdue reuniting of this director and actor. Takeshi Kaneshiro plays the cagey Zhuge Liang with charm and deference. Model-turned-actress-for-the-first-time Chiling Lin is Xiao Qiao, Zhou Yu’s brave and loyal wife. Some historians say that Cao Cao’s true motivation for waging war on Sun Quan was to take the remarkable beauty, Xiao Qiao for himself. We all know how those endeavors tend to end.
Red Cliff is a martial arts film, though not a typical one. There is some wire work but it’s based very clearly in reality; not so much of that running up and down bamboo trees. This is also a war film. For those of you that like you action exciting and bloody, you’ll get your fill. Finally, Red Cliff is exciting and romantic. If you’re someone who is not afraid of reading subtitles you’re going to thoroughly enjoy this ride. Me? I can’t wait till the 5-hour version is available on DVD!