Albert Lanier checks out the USified 2 hour cut of John Woo's RED CLIFF at HIFF!
HIFF 29: RED-FACED WITH VICTORY
by Albert Lanier
I once had a professor in an English class in college once observe that "people say that war doesn't solve anything."
"Nonsense" he argued "war solves a lot of things."
I recall agreeing with him then and I still agree with him years later. The very nature of war provides an indelibly bloody series of answers to numerous questions. While many questions and problems arise in the wake of war, it can be argued that the massive projection of force can solve some problems.
Ideally and materially, war is nothing but a waste-of land, of resources, of lives. A destructive though all-encompassing malevolent force of chaos, a man-made tsunami of annihilation and devastation.
However, seen from a purely pragmatic point of view, war has its merits solely as a problem-solving mechanism.
I kept that in mind while I was watching RED CLIFF (CHI BI), director John Woo's return to Chinese cinema. A sprawling, impressive war epic, RED CLIFF recreates through CGI-laden special effects and numerous extras the Battle of the Red Cliffs, a conflict that weakened the dynasty of the Han Emperor of China.
Supposedly based on the novel "Romance of the Three Kingdoms" (Woo has said in interviews that he actually based the film on the historical account "Records of Three Kingdoms"), RED CLIFF is set in 208 A.D. Han Prime Minister Cao Cao (played by Zhang Fenyi) has conquered numerous warlords and kingdoms bringing them under the fold of the Han Empire.
Cao Cao is manipulative and intimidating. He pushes the Han Emperor into declaring war against the Kingdoms of Xu-ruled by Liu Bei-and Wu-ruled by Sun Quan so that Cao Cao's thirst for war can continue to be sated.
The Han force under Cao Cao's control attacks Xu first causing hundreds if not thousands of civilians to flee. Xu's army is proving to be no match for the battle-trained forces of Han and lose several battles.
Xu does possess an ace up its sleeve-not a new weapon or battle plan but a man named Zhuge Liang (Takeshi Kaneshiro), chief strategist for Xu. His plan is to form an alliance with the Eastern Kingdom of Wu-otherwise known as the Southlands-and use their combined remaining resources to defend and defeat the overwhelming powerful Han army.
And powerful the Han army is with 800,000 men under arms and a staggering fleet of troop ships that- thanks to computer digital effects- look like the Asian equivalent of the Spanish Armada.
Zhuge Liang hightails it to the Southlands where he meets with Sun Quan and more importantly, his Viceroy Zhou Yu (Tony Leung). It is this team that hammers together the strategies that will allow both Kingdoms to ultimately repel and defeat the Han Imperial Forces.
I'm not going to reveal all their stratagems here-those of you reading this who seen this film in Asia or on bootleg DVDs or sites know what I am talking about and the rest of you will have to find out for yourselves.
One major effort I will reveal is that they use straw festooned boats to goad the Han forces into firing their arrows at them. The straw basically hold the arrows in place and make sure that the combine of Wu/Xu forces have 100,000 arrows at their disposal-thanks to their enemy.
Master director John Woo demonstrates in RED CLIFF that he knows how direct a large-scale war epic. Woo- who co-wrote the film's script with writers Khan Chen, Cheng Kuo and Heyu Sheng-knows to how to delineate his character well enough that we get a sense of the personalities and individual characters at work.
Woo appears to handle logistics well enough here as well-although most of the "soldiers" are CGI-and gets some fairly good performances from his actors especially Zhang Fenyi who plays Cao Cao not as some mustache-twirling villain but a man of supreme confidence and ambition who can lay the tactical and strategic chess game of battle well up to a point.
Takeshi Kaneshiro does a fine job of rounding out the role of strategist Zhuge Liang and Tony Leung puts on his hero face fairly well here as Zhou Yu.
The battle scenes contain the usual clash of steel and spinning bodies requisite in large Asian war films of this variety and are fairly well done though they can get tiring to watch at times.
The heart of the film is in the formation of strategy and battle tactics on the part of both camps. RED CLIFF -despite its battle scenes- feels at time more like a game of Go than a full-bodied demonstration of warfare.
RED CLIFF was an expensive undertaking, an $80 million epic that was shown in two parts throughout Asia and has grossed over $200 million dollars thus far.
The version I saw at HIFF was over two hours long. This has been trimmed for a release for Western audiences from the reported 280 minute version.
Is RED CLIFF a good film? Yes but nothing more than craftsman type work on an epic scale for Woo. It lacks the powerful personal connections of some of his earlier films though it must be said in his defense, it is hard to get too personal during a war epic.
Near the end of the film, Tony Leung's character states that "There is no victor here."
That sounded a false note because RED CLIFF above all is a celebration of warfare-not in and of it self but as a means of defense and conflict resolution.
The victory might seem slightly hollow but it is a victory after all. Problem solved.