Red Cliff

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AKA: The Battle of Red Cliff

Year of release: 2008

Genre: historical action/drama

Director: John Woo

Action directors: Corey Yuen, Dion Lam

Producers: Terrance Chang, Bill Kong

Writers: John Woo, Chen Han, Sheng Heyu

Cinematography: Lu Yue, Zhang Li

Editors: Angie Lam, Yang Hong-Yu

Music: Iwashiro Taro

Stars: Tony Leung Chiu-Wai, Takeshi Kaneshiro, Zhang Fengyi, Chang Chen, Vicky Zhao, Hu Jun, Lin Chi-Ling, Shido Nakamura, You Yong, Song Jia, Tong Dawei, Hou Yong, Ba Sen Zha Bu, Zang Jinsheng, Zhang Shan, Shi Xiaohong, He Yin

Rated IIB for violence

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Along with Jackie Chan and Jet Li, the films of John Woo were a major part of the explosion of western fandom for Hong Kong movies. In fact, the site you're at now was born out of a small AOL-based John Woo tribute. So it was probably inevitable that Woo would cross the ocean and try his hand at Hollywood productions.

But besides Face/Off (and to a lesser extent Mission: Impossible 2), Woo never really seemed to find his groove working in the American studio system. By the time 2003's Ben Affleck-starring clunker Paycheck limped onto US screens and made a quick journey straight to video and late-night cable fodder, it was quite clear that Woo's US output would never manage to attain the heights of his Hong Kong oeuvre.

But at that time, Woo found himself in a precarious place. While he apparently wasn't able to work within the constraints of American productions, the Hong Kong film industry -- now a shell of itself from its' former heyday that was buoyed by Woo's "heroic bloodshed" films of the day like The Killer -- wasn't exactly attractive, either.

Many people thought Woo was done for good. However, over the past few years, the economic rise of China has given a shot in the arm to its' film industry, which could now truly compete on the world stage, even with the censorship imposed by the communist rulers. And so Red Cliff was born.

An adaptation of the long-popular Romance of the Three Kingdoms stories (perhaps best known to westerners via Koei's strategic games of the same name, and its' twitchy action-based offshoot Dynasty Warriors) Red Cliff garnered a lot of press before the first frame was shot.

Most of this was due to it being split into two parts, each released during a prime box office period. The first installment was released last summer, where it held its' own even with the competition posed by the competition of the juggernaut known as The Dark Knight, with the conclusion coming during 2009's lucrative Lunar New Year season. As each of the films had a budget of about US$80 million, Red Cliff is by and far the most expensive Mainland production to date.

There was also quite a stir generated behind the scenes. Beginning with the highly publicized departure of long-time Woo collaborator Chow Yun-Fat from the cast list, and culminating in a tragic on-set accident that resulted in the death of a stuntman, Red Cliff had the industry buzzing and questioning if it could even be finished, much less be a quality film that stacks up against Woo's best work. Thankfully, the output does seem to confirm that John Woo is still one hell of a director and can make great movies.

The plot is a bit dense to go into a short summary for a review -- and given that this is only the first part, giving a complete breakdown is kind of a moot point anyway. At any rate, the film tells the story of a turbulent point in Chinese history, where various leaders are vying for control of the country. Cao Cao (Zhang Fengyi) has been tearing across the land, and his ruthless methods have allowed him to overtake most of his opponents. But he is facing a strong adversary in the form of Liu Bei (You Yong), whose dedicated generals have generated a temporary stalemate.

Though his forces have great heart and talent, Liu Bei realizes he will eventually lose against Cao Cao's massive army. So, on the advice of his top advisor, Zhuge Liang (Takeshi Kaneshiro), Liu decides to strike up an alliance with Sun Quan (Chang Chen). Sun has a reputation for favoring diplomacy rather than force, but after talking with his main general, Zhou Yu (Tony Leung Chiu-Wai), Sun decides to ally himself with Liu, which leads to a climatic confrontation at a stronghold known as Red Cliff.

Even though Red Cliff does have a dense plot and a long running time at almost two and a half hours, it never feels bloated. There are a couple of scenes that felt like they could have been trimmed a bit, but nothing seems totally unnecessary. It's a testament to John Woo's ability as a director that he is able to pack so much into scenes, where he gives a lot of information and plot development without overwhelming the viewer.

A scene where Zhuge Liang and Zhou Yu bond while playing music demonstrates this perfectly. On the surface, it might just look like an excuse for Woo to throw in some of his often-used cinematic devices -- a musical scene framed by filming techniques very much inspired by US films form the 1930's and '40's. But when one looks deeper, Woo manages to accomplish more character and plot development in one short scene than many directors could hope to create during their film's entire running time.

Woo's direction is, for the most part, deftly handled by the actors. Vicky Zhao, playing the film's sole female lead as Sun Quan's sister, pretty much typifies the definition of "jade vase". Then again, Woo has never really been known for creating strong female characters, so the viewer will probably give him some leeway in that department. But the rest of the cast does a fine job, especially Tony Leung Chiu-Wai, who would probably rocket to the tier of world's coolest actors based on this performance if he wasn't already firmly planted there.

Takeshi Kaneshiro's more reserved performance gives a nice counterpoint to Tony's, and Chang Chen creates a suitably nasty villain; he's evil but not totally over the top or outright hateable. The supporting cast also creates some memorable characters, most notably Ba Sen Zha Bu as Guan Yu (aka General Kwan). One look at his scenes will make you realize why Chinese people still have altars to him. His role is fairly small, but the action contained in them will make you an immediate fan.

Speaking of action, as Red Cliff is a John Woo movie, of course some note must be made of it. The whole "big historical battle epic" has been one of the most popular in Hong Kong and China over the past few years, and so, chances are, if you're a regular viewer of Chinese films, you've seen quite a few action scenes of the huge medieval battle variety. Rest assured, the stuff presented here is some of the best -- if not the best -- put to celluoid in this genre.

The team of Corey Yuen and Dion Lam created some very exciting stuff here. Even though this sort of thing has been done countless times over the years in Hong Kong and Chinese movies, the action presented in Red Cliff feels totally unique. Even though there's only two battle scenes, there's enough action here for multiple movies.

The action scenes have that rarely-seen (especially in these days of overly-slick CGI-rooted productions) impact of making the hair on the back of your neck standing up and getting you energized. When the film ends seemingly right before another battle seems ready to begin, it gives the viewer the ultimate "cliff hanger" feeling, because if what they've seen previously is so great, then what's set to come must be extraordinary.

Let's hope this is the case when Red Cliff 2 comes out in January 2009. With such a great start, it would be a crushing disappointment to see a resolution that offered anything less than the quality of this production, which fully marks John Woo's return to the upper echelon of directors. Those who have been lamenting the current state of HK/Chinese productions can take well to heart that there's at least some life left in it, and that's perhaps Red Cliff's greatest accomplishment.

RATING: 8

Note: for its' US theatrical release, both parts of Red Cliff were paired together and edited down to 148 minutes. More information about that version, as well as the US Blu-Ray, can be found here. The movie was also put out in the US on DVD and Blu-Ray in a set that contains both films in their original length.