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China 2008
Directed by
John Woo
148 minutes
Rated MA

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
4.5 stars

Red Cliff

Synopsis: In China during the period of Han dynasty,  Prime Minister Cao Cao (Fengyi Zhang) has conquered the warlords in the North of the country and turned his sights to the remainder of the empire where two men Liu Bei  (Yong You) and Zhou Yu (Tony Leung) are prepared to fight to the death to preserve their autonomy.

John Woo’s Hong Kong action films are highly regarded by aficionados of the genre. In the early 1990s he headed to Hollywood and proceeded to comprehensively disappoint his fan base with movies such  as Broken Arrow, Face/Off, and Mission: Impossible II. For his first Chinese language film since 1992 he has chosen to tackle the historical epic and one can only say the return to his native soil has paid off in spades.

Although released in Asia in two 2 hour parts, the Western language version we are seeing has been reduced to a single feature, apparently to spare us the convolutions of who is doing what to whom, which admittedly is hard to tell, particularly in the battle sequences. At 148 minutes however, is hard to believe that we have missed too much. If anything, the film suffers from a surfeit of superbly staged rumpuses but there is no doubt that it is an extraordinarily well-crafted production. Whilst there is a little too much Lord Of the Rings-style CGI animation,  much of the film is shot with live performers, which included 100,000 soldiers of the Chinese Army. If logistically the mammoth scale of the production is breathtaking, the film comes closer to being an old-fashioned adventure romance than the typical Chinese historical epic, a form which regularly uses the large scale to impressive effect.  In many ways, Red Cliff recalls the slightly tongue-in-cheek, derring-do swashbucklers from the days of Errol Flynn and Douglas Fairbanks Jr and this make the film enormously entertaining at the same time as it awes.

One of the strengths of Woo’s film in this respect is its characters and cast. Tony Leung (replacing Yun-Fat Chow who apparently pulled out as principal photography was about to begin) as Zhou Yu and Takeshi Kaneshiro as his strategic advisor are marvellous as the underdogs who must defeat their overwhelmingly better-equipped opponent using their intelligence and cunning more than their strength. The finely crafted screenplay gives as much attention to the psychological, emotional and intellectual dimensions of the struggle as it does to the obligatory combatory set pieces and the way in which it imbues the action with philosophy is deftly realized. Also particularly effectively handled is the gentle relationship between Zhou Yu and his beautiful wife Xiao Qiao played by newcomer Chiling Lin, although I thought the race at the film’s end to rescue her from Cao Cao's henchmen a little disappointingly handled.

Whilst arguably Woo’s tendency to spectacular excess does get the better of him and the final shot seems unnecessarily cheesy, Red Cliff has much more on offer than thundering, big-budget action in period costume. It’s also got beauty and intelligence.




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