In searching for a way to describe John Woo’s Red Cliff the best I can come up with is to call it exactly what it is, a beautifully rendered 208 A.D. Chinese epic living in the world of a John Woo blockbuster popcorn feature. However, such a description seems almost contradictory, but nonetheless as accurate as I can get when referring to this equally playful, romantic and violent war story loosely based on the 14th-century Chinese novel “Romance of the Three Kingdoms.”
I wish I was more familiar with the early work of director John Woo, but other than his highly acclaimed Hard Boiled, I’m afraid my knowledge is limited to his mixed bag of Hollywood features with Face/Off being my favorite of the bunch. However, I guess I’m not entirely at a loss as Woo has commissioned one of his Hard Boiled stars in Tony Leung to spearhead his first film since the abysmal Paycheck in 2003 and his his first Asian born film since Hard Boiled in 1992.
The result of said return is an explosively entertaining film with Shaw Brothers-style quick zooms, tortoise formations, a predicted changing of the winds, full body spearing, romantic tea sit downs, stories told using music on the guqin and even some Han dynasty biological warfare of sorts. And that’s just a primer.
The story centers on Cao Cao (Zhang Feng Yi), the tyrannical Prime Minister-turned-General from the north who has convinced the Emperor that the Southlands must be conquered. Poised to be overthrown are two southern warlords, Liu Bei (You Yong) and Sun Quan (Chang Chen). The two band together at the advice of military strategist Zhuge Liang (Takeshi Kaneshiro) and under the leadership of Viceroy of the Southlands, Zhou Yu (Leung), they take to the battlefield.
The catch is the fact the warriors of the Southlands are vastly outnumbered. Fortunately military tactics and an overall knowledge of the elements balance out a battle of tens of thousands versus hundreds of thousand, at least balanced more than the numbers would indicate.
Considering its size and the scope of its action pieces some of the best moments are shared glances, particularly between Leung and Kaneshiro as they strategize their next move or how they are going to manage to bolster their arrow supply all while diminishing the enemy’s. Woo has never been afraid of comedy, but here it isn’t as much comical as much as it is playful interaction that helps balance out the tension caused by the rest of the story. Newcomer Chiling Lin, playing Leung’s wife, also shares the film’s quieter moments with her husband as he prepares for battle.
Leung is an obvious standout as he always is, the guy would be hard-pressed to disappoint and I can certainly appreciate the fact he hasn’t felt the need to become a major Hollywood star and has stuck to making movies with the likes of Woo, Ang Lee, Yimou Zhang and, of course, Kar Wai Wong. Kaneshiro is also no stranger to powerful performances as he was also impressive as Jin in Yimou Zhang’s House of Flying Daggers in 2004, but most notably in the outstanding 1994 Kar Wai Wong film Chunking Express, which also starred Leung.
If I was to have a complaint it would be at the occasional use of wirework, which isn’t overused by any means, but in early field battle sequences it takes away from the reality of it all. Thankfully it is used sparingly with far more attention paid to military strategy and the attempts of both sides to try and outwit the other.
Along with all the violence and military strategy that is sure to excite action fans there’s also something beautifully satisfying about this film. My description of the film in my opening is probably the best I can come up with, but to simplify it a bit further, to call this a classy blockbuster would not be too far off.