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A Chinese epic, repackaged for export
by Jason Blair
RED CLIFF: Directed by John Woo. Written by Woo, Chan Khan, Kuo Cheng and Sheng Heyu. Cinematography, Yu Lue and Zhang Li. Music, Taro Iwashiro. Starring Tony Leung, Zhang Fengyi, You Yong, Chang Chen and Takeshi Kaneshiro. Magnolia Pictures, 2009. R. 140 minutes.
John Woo was supposed to feel right at home in Hollywood. After establishing himself as the action auteur of the early ’90s with The Killer and Hard Boiled, the Hong Kong director relocated to America, only to spend the next decade losing his touch as well as his audience. From Hard Target to Face/Off to Paycheck, Woo’s work became decreasingly relevant, his highly stylized gunplay sequences failing to connect with American audiences. Unable to adjust culturally or artistically, the director so admired by Martin Scorsese and Quentin Tarantino — and the man who discovered Jackie Chan and Chow Yun-Fat — quietly returned to mainland China in 2008.
Red Cliff, if not a triumphant return for Woo, is certainly an extravagant one. It is the most expensive film ever made in China as well as the most successful, exceeding the box office receipts of Titanic. A lavish, extravagant and sometimes slick military epic, Red Cliff is part history and part folklore, an epic telling of the fall of the Han dynasty that fails to connect, partly because so much of the original has been edited out. (The original film, released in two parts, is more than four hours long.) Purged of its quieter, character-building scenes, its greatest strength is its emphasis on military gamesmanship, an aspect it exploits with few equals in modern cinema.
The characters in Red Cliff, while popular in Chinese culture, will be unknown to American audiences. On behalf of the young and indecisive Han Emperor, the wicked Prime Minister Cao Cao (Zhang Fengyi) declares war against the passive Southlands. The year is 208 A.D., but the sensibilities are modern day. Cao Cao first attacks Liu Bei (You Yong), a crusty old warrior who, upon seeing his army vanquished, says flatly, “This is hardly my worst defeat.” From there, Liu Bei forms an alliance with the inexperienced Sun Quan (Chang Chen, Crouching Tiger) and his sister Shang Xiang (Zhao Wei), a braintrust which includes the stoic viceroy Zhou Yu (Tony Leung). But the star of the film is Kongming (Takeshi Kaneshiro), the wiry military strategist who acts as a war-whisperer for the Southlands alliance. If Kongming can lure Cao Cao’s troops, as many as a million in number, into a trap at the Battle of Red Cliff, the vastly outnumbered alliance has a chance.
In terms of sheer pageantry, Red Cliff rivals Lawrence of Arabia; in terms of sheer casualties, it rivals The Lord of the Rings; in terms of sheer horseplay, it has no equal. Woo’s trademark stylization can’t make up for the mild but neverending battle gore, nor can it make interesting, at least for Western audiences, a vast panoply of characters recognizable only to those familiar with Chinese mythology. This film reminds me a great deal of Michael Mann’s Last of the Mohicans, from the soaring soundtrack to its earnest, overbearing spirit, and like Mohicans, Red Cliff is a very mixed bag. It has elaborate and perfectly synchronized swordplay, as well as corny, child’s play CGI. There are too few characters about whom to care, and too little is revealed about them. It is at once a grand spectacle and a great glorifier of war; the former, while intended to make the latter bearable, in the end barely makes up for it.