Although the focus of my historical interest is medieval and renaissance Europe, I’ve always had a fondness for the Far East, ever since my early teens when I used to watch The Water Margin with my Dad. I love all kinds of Asian cinema, from visually gorgeous epics like Hero to non-stop-action martial arts movies. Red Cliff delivers, for me at least, a near-perfect mix of the two.
Note that the version reviewed here is the earlier, heavily cut Western release, just over two hours long, not the epic four-hour original.
Red Cliff (2008)
Set in 3rd-century Han China in the aftermath of a civil war, Red Cliff is a retelling of the historical Battle of Chi Bi. Ambitious prime minister Cao Cao persuades the young Emperor that to secure permanent peace, it is necessary to crush the two remaining warlords: Liu Bei and Sun Quan. Taking his vast but exhausted army south, Cao Cao drives Liu Bei and his ragtag band of rebels before him. Liu Bei sends his brilliant young strategist Zhuge Liang (Takeshi Kaneshiro) to convince Sun Quan’s viceroy Zhou Yu (Tony Leung) to form an alliance, and together they make a stand, on the Yangtse River at the fortress of Red Cliff.
This being a John Woo movie, there is plenty of action, from vast panoramic battle scenes to one-on-one combat, the latter in typically flamboyant – and bloody! – Woo style, though without the exagerrated wirework that has become almost a big a cliché of Asian cinema as “bullet time” is in its Western equivalents. It’s not all yang, however; there are quiet moments, from tea ceremonies to musical duets, as beautifully filmed as in any of the more “artsy” Chinese movies. And speaking of yin, although this is inevitably a film dominated by its male characters, the women are not neglected. Sun Quan’s sister Shangxiang plays a very active role in helping to defeat Cao Cao, and even Zhou Yu’s wife, the gentle Xiao Qiao, who wishes they could all sit down and talk over tea instead of fighting, refuses to sit at home whilst brave men die all around her.
If I have one complaint, it’s that the cuts create a few jumps in the narrative that can leave the viewer a little puzzled, so I can’t wait to get hold of the “extended” (i.e. uncut) version and see it in all its glory. If you have any interest in military history – or just dig the awesome battle scenes in Return of the King – I would strongly recommend seeing this film.