When a film is rated R by the MPAA due to “intense sequences of epic warfare,” it’s difficult not to be intrigued, if not excited. And “Red Cliff”—an amalgam of “300,” “Lord of the Rings,” and “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”—certainly lives up to these expectations. With grandiose battle sequences, crisp and masterful cinematography, and an endless showcase of the beautiful Chinese landscape, director John Woo’s triumphant return to his homeland is an instant classic. Through the retelling of historical events nearly two millennia ago, Woo’s “Red Cliff” becomes a powerful celebration of Chinese culture and tradition.
Woo, a legendary Chinese film director with an impressive repertoire, has been in Hollywood for the past 17 years. In 1992, he emigrated to the U.S. to take L.A. by storm. Blockbusters like “Mission: Impossible 2,” “Face/Off,” and “Windtalkers” brought Woo a degree of fame that even his early success in China could not have predicted. After establishing himself as a prominent Hong Kong director with gritty films such as “Hard Boiled” and “A Better Tomorrow,” Woo descended into predictable, high-octane Americanized dramas that seemed to hamper his directorial creativity. “Red Cliff” marks a return to both his native land—the film was shot over one year in and around Beijing—as well as his native tongue—the film is entirely in Mandarin with English subtitles flying across the screen.
“Red Cliff” is set in third-century China during the fall of the Han Dynasty, before and during the Battle of the Red Cliffs. The country is being torn apart by civil war, and a power-hungry Northern warlord is looking to eliminate the only two remaining sovereign kingdoms in the South. “Red Cliff” maps the alliance of these two politically distinct yet ethnically united peoples in the face of destruction, paying particular attention to the resilience of Chinese people.
The film’s original two-part release, titled “Chi bi” in China, clocked in at a daunting 280 minutes. In coming to the states, the film was cut to 150 minutes; the abridged version still retains the primary plot’s themes of alliance and conflict at the sacrifice of several subplots of love and intrigue.
Through the use of intense live-action shots along with extensive yet tasteful use of CGI, Woo successfully captures the enormity of the war scenes as well as the immediacy of one-on-one combat and melee face-offs. The sheer vastness of Woo’s Chinese navy and army—with tens of thousands of ships extending past the horizon—encourages a dizzying suspension of reality. Whether witnessing enemy horses blinded by mirror-shields, naval ships destroyed by suicide fireboats, or diseased, dead soldiers floated across to the enemy’s shore to infect their army, the film’s frenzied violence permeates every frame.
But what makes “Red Cliff” truly a marvel is Woo’s meticulous and surprising cinematography. Though he depicts the brutal, primitive, and rough-seamed battles of blood and violence, Woo handles the entire movie with great care. Inventive camera angles—shot from a cavalry horse’s perspective or from the tail of a dove—meet well-timed slow motion sequences. The soldiers’ dull armor and the tan sands on which they travel create a stunning contrast with the bright, multi-colored banners they carry into combat. For the most part, Woo eschews loud, crashing music in favor of delicate, melodic Chinese stringed instruments, which are often played by characters in the movie.
By incorporating majestic panoramas of the Chinese landscape, wise sayings of their philosophy and folklore, and harmonious music from their ancient instruments, Woo conveys with pride an important series of events in his country’s history, one unfamiliar to most Western audiences. In a dramatic departure from both his early mob movies and his American action hits, Woo’s “Red Cliff” serves as an entertaining war film set within a stirring and resonant celebration of Chinese culture.
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