By Andrew Hamlin
Northwest Asian Weekly
“Red Cliff” is John Woo’s first Chinese movie since 1991’s “Once a Thief.” His new film triumphs over the cutting of the footage which is almost as cruel as the cuttings of so many characters over the film’s running time. Conceived as a four-hour epic in two parts, it reaches the United States as a single film that runs two and a half hours.
However, one critic who watched the overseas version of the film complained that just as the huge epic battle at the end was about to start, the film ended. That was probably the end of part one. The edited Western version doesn’t have this problem. All of the promised shock, awe, and bloodshed are delivered.
The shorter version does leave one wondering if some subtle points regarding the characters and their relationships ended up being cut. The slower, softer parts of the movie don’t flow nearly as well as the blazing battles.
The film takes its inspiration from actual events in 208 A.D., toward the end of China’s Han Dynasty. Cao Cao (played by Fengyi Zhang), prime minister of the Imperial Army, convinces his emperor to start a war against two powerful southern rebels, Sun Quan (Chen Chang) and Liu Bei (Yong You). We know Cao Cao is probably more powerful than the emperor, judging from the sweat running down the emperor’s face as the prime minister states his case.
Liu Bei’s trusted adviser Zhuge Liang (Takeshi Kaneshiro) travels to Sun Quan’s kingdom. He must convince Sun Quan to join forces with Liu Bei if either of the leaders has any chance of standing up against Cao Cao. However, Sun Quan is surrounded by ministers arguing against starting a war.
As the Western version of the film rolls along, alliances sprout and die. Treachery rears its ugly head. Sun Shangxiang (Wei Zhao), an intelligent woman in an era that didn’t admire female warriors, acquires skills as a spy.
But we don’t learn very much about Sun Shangxiang as a person. We also don’t know much about the various love affairs inserted between battlefield sequences. What draws these people together? What keeps them together in the face of ever-rising adversity? Answers to these questions seem to have ended up on the cutting-room floor.
As expected in Woo’s films, action saves the day. In an era where warriors didn’t use guns, the director can’t recreate his signature bullet ballets, like those found in his impressive series of films starring Yun-Fat Chow.
But he adapts surprisingly well to the ways of the Han Dynasty. Flocks of arrows rain from the sky. Spears thrust out from behind shields. Horses plummet to the mud, throwing their riders off.
At the end of the film, an entire landscape sits in flames, spewing off hot ashes. Dust blows through the heat.
“There is no victory here,” remarks a warlord, just before the credits roll. It’s a sobering thought in a John Woo film, where fights and ultimate victories are always the main points. Maybe he’s growing more philosophical as he ages. Maybe, after a career of made-up mayhem, he’s listening to the lessons of history. ♦
“Red Cliff” opens Wednesday, Nov. 25 in Seattle. Check local listings for prices and show times.
Andrew Hamlin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.