Reviews Too Late: Red Cliff

by wjw on February 10, 2012

One quick question:  why are films about the Alamo always boring? 

I’ll leave you to ponder that while I chat about Red Cliff.

Red Cliff was the most expensive film ever made in China, and also produced more Asian box office than any film, ever.  Originally it was released as two films in 2008-9, a format that is reproduced on DVD as the “International Edition,” which gives us the two films on two DVDs for a total run time of 280 minutes.  There is also an American cut that runs a mere 148 minutes, which— as a guess— retains all the action scenes but none of the character development.

I saw the International Edition, because, well, in for a renminbi, out for five metric tonnes of flax.

Once again, as with my earlier viewing of Three Kingdoms (which features a lot of the same historical characters), I found myself in an unusual position with regard to the film.   Thanks to obsessive playing of Koei’s Romance of the Three Kingdoms back in the day, I had actually played most of the film’s characters myself.  Was Tony Leung playing Zhou Yu, or was he playing me playing Zhou Yu?  Or were we both the dreams of a butterfly, or maybe a Ming Dynasty novelist named Luo Guanzhong?

Anyway, it was with a considerable feeling of déjà vu that I saw this film.

Once again, we are at the beginning of the Three Kingdoms Period.  The evil usurper Cao Cao, who commands the North, is prepared to grind all of China beneath his exquisitely polished heel.  Liu Bei (the hero of the novel) commands the West, but has so far done little but lose one battle after another.  Commanding the South is the young, untried Sun Quan.  Individually they are too weak to fight Cao Cao.  But can they trust one another long enough to defeat the common enemy?

John Woo, the director, made his reputation with emotionally intense action films like The Killer and Hard-Boiled.   His characters were never soulless killers, but people in considerable emotional pain, able to bond only with those whose extremes equaled their own.  Usually this meant men bonding with each other through automatic weapons fire, often directed at each other.  At some point, you could count on his heroes finding themselves in a standoff, pistols pointed at each other’s heads.  Woo is also fond of visual motifs like flocks of white doves, often in the setting of a Christian chapel, and has a trademark of men flying through the air firing a pistol in each hand.

All in all, perhaps an unusual choice for a historical epic, though he handles the vast action very well, and manages to get white doves into the story along with versions of his other trademarks.

Red Cliff opens with the same scene as Three Kingdoms, in which the hero Zhao Zilong (also known as Zhao Yun) rescues Liu Bei’s infant son by cutting his way through the enemy army.  But the focus of this film isn’t on Zhao, or the other Five Tiger Generals (though they all appear), but on Liu Bei’s counselor and strategist, Zhuge Liang, played by Takeshi Kaneshiro.  Both these names may require a certain amount of explanation.

Zhuge Liang, also known as Crouching Dragon (Wolong), is the Chinese epitome of the intellectual man of action, the sort of person who can toss off an epigram, plan a campaign, woo a foreign ruler, or invent land mines without breaking a sweat.  (He is actually credited with inventing land mines, honest.  As well as steam buns, the wheelbarrow, and the repeating crossbow.)  He is usually depicted carrying a fan made of crane’s feathers.  Today he is worshiped as a god in numerous temples.

The actor playing him, Takeshi Kaneshiro, is a Japanese raised on Taiwan.    The characters forming his name are pronounced as “Wu Jincheng” in Chinese, and this is the name he uses on the Mainland.  He is a wildly successful actor in Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Japan.

He plays Zhuge as a soft-spoken, austere character who carries not just a fan made of crane feathers, but the whole crane wing.  He dresses in white robes, and alone of the warrior heroes disdains armor, striding through bloody battles in his white civvies and an air of unconcern.

Zhuge is sent by Liu Bei to the court of Sun Quan, in hopes of generating an alliance.  Sun is young and uncertain, and most of his ministers advise immediate surrender.  Zhuge has to resort to various strategies to emotionally toughen up Sun before the young warlord decides on resistance.  Sun puts his army under the control of his older advisor, Zhou Yu, played by “Short” Tony Leung (Chiu Wai) [as distinct from “Tall” Tony Leung (Ka Fai)].

Short Tony plays the role with thoughtful gravitas, and as a much older man than the historical Zhou Yu, who died young.  The male bonding typical of John Woo films takes place between the two strategists and advisors, and without Woo’s usual emotional extremes.   There are many scenes of the two men verbally and mentally sparring with each other, as well as (through the aether) with Cao Cao, who is plotting their downfall.  Each of our heroes knows that once Cao Cao is dealt with, they may be on opposite sides of another war (as in fact they were).

And now, to return to my original question: Why are films about the Alamo always boring?

The answer is twofold:

1.  They’re films about a siege.  Sieges are always boring, since mostly sieges are just people sitting around.

2.  You already know how it ends, so there’s no suspense, and the whole film is just one long stall until the finish.

That’s the problem with Red Cliff.  The action is for all intents and purposes a siege, with the two sides glowering at each other across a big moat (that happens to be the Yangtze River).  And the outcome of the Battle of Red Cliff is as well known in China as the Alamo is over here, so there’s no suspense about how it turns out.

In Alamo movies, the creators usually have to invent a lot of action to go into the middle part, in order to keep the ending from happening after the first thirty minutes.

That’s also the strategy here.  John Woo and the film’s other three writers must have driven themselves half insane trying to create enough character moments, subplots, and spectacle to hold off the ending for three whole hours.

For the most part they succeed.  There’s the mental and military sparring between the various leads.  The Five Tiger Generals each get a moment or two.  There’s a weird sort of triangle between Zhou Yu, his wife Xiao Qiao (played by the incredibly gorgeous Lin Chiling, who is so staggeringly famous at home in Taiwan that she’s known as “the Lin Chiling phenomenon.”), and Cao Cao, who has been lusting after Xiao since childhood, and may have invaded Wu simply to possess her.  There are betrayals.  There’s Sun Quan’s feisty sister Shangxiang, who has trained as a warrior and who has also trained her maids into a kind of personal combat corps.  Shangxiang infiltrates Cao Cao’s army dressed (unconvincingly) as an ordinary soldier, and has a touching romance with one of Cao Cao’s peasant soldiers.  There are spies, betrayals, plagues, and white doves that cross the Yangtze bearing messages.

Still, I was getting impatient for the blazing finale, and eventually I got it . . . lots of it.  I don’t think I have ever seen more spectacle in an action scene— hundreds of warships, thousands of warriors.   (The People’s Liberation Army loaned the production a couple of battalions).

There’s action.  There’s pathos.  There’s a whole lot of blood spatter.

I don’t want to give away the ending, because if you don’t know it ahead of time, chances are you’ll enjoy the film a good deal more.

If you’re the sort of person who enjoys four-hour historical epics full of color and spectacle, with well-realized characters mentally sparring with one another before getting out the halberds for the bloody finale, then this is the movie for you.

And if you’re not, it’s not.

So perhaps the proper question is, Do you like Alamo movies?  And would you like to see one directed by John Woo?

Dave Bishop February 10, 2012 at 2:27 pm

I wonder what, in real life, pistol recoil would do to the trajectory of someone flying through the air and firing pistols at the same time?

I haven’t got a clue. I never was very good at Physics. Nevertheless, I suspect that it would be unlikely to go well!

Barbara Webb February 10, 2012 at 5:30 pm

Huh. Netflix claims to have the international version, but that it is only 148 minutes long.

wjw February 10, 2012 at 11:17 pm

Barbara, I know Netflix has the two-disk International Version, because that’s what I watched.

Dave, I doubt that the recoil would do much. Movies tend to exaggerate the effects of bullets for dramatic effect, having people flung against walls and such, when that isn’t what would actually happen. If a bullet impact were enough to hurl someone against a wall, it would also hurl the shooter a similar distance (equal and opposite reaction, etc.).

I would offer to test it, but I think throwing myself through the air would affect my accuracy more than anything else, and the bullets might end up landing on someone I like.

Chris Mills February 11, 2012 at 12:25 am

Cool to see that this is finally out in English DVD versions. I have an uncredited bit of work in there where I made a 56 frame transition happen for a guy who’s face morphs into that of a tiger.

Barbara Webb February 11, 2012 at 3:45 am

Walter, does it show up in your queue as one or two discs? In mine it is only showing as one disc, even though the cover image says “parts one and two.”

I do notice when I put it in my queue there is a short wait. Shall I blame you for that? 🙂

wjw February 11, 2012 at 4:31 am

I had both Volume I and Volume II on reserve, but they sent them both on one package. My guess is they do it however they want.

But if there’s a delay between the arrival of the two DVDs, remember that’s how the original Chinese audience saw it, as two separate films months apart.

Jim Janney February 12, 2012 at 6:41 am

The Iliad is about a siege.

wjw February 12, 2012 at 6:44 am

The Iliad is about the 45 days of a siege in which some stuff actually happened. The rest of the ten years are ignored.

Jim Janney February 13, 2012 at 3:30 am

I should have added, and we’re still waiting for a good movie on it. The Odyssey is much more filmable.

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