Red Cliff is an epic retelling of the battle of Red Cliffs in which a power hungry politician attempts to invade the peaceful lands of the south to unite the kingdom under his personal rule.
Although clearly a historical epic, the film I was reminded of the most whilst watching Red Cliff was The Two Towers, mainly because of the fact that it is pretty much just one huge battle sequence in which two vast armies of pixels kick the crap out of each other. It’s basically the story of a game of military chess between two strategists rather than anything as mystical and romantic as Crouching Tiger or House Of Flying Daggers, and as such it is much more of a “boy’s film”. John Woo does in fact try to inject some of this sweeping romanticism, but it falls short of Ang Lee’s poetic vision because it relies entirely on one character; unfortunately she is criminally underwritten and Wei Zhao plays her with a constant vacant semi-smile that just made her look a bit dim witted. On the other hand Takeshi Kaneshiro clearly relishes the role of wily tactician which makes a change from his usual action man persona and the best sequences come when the personalities of the characters are stamped onto the surrounding battle; namely the involvement of their feisty spy and Kaneshiro’s ploy to steal arrows from the opposing army. The opening sequence featuring a general protecting his master’s baby – a clear reference to Hard Boiled – also raises a smile.
Maybe not fully rounded, but as a visual spectacle Red Cliff is an absolute feast.
The international release of Red Cliff was in fact a heavily edited amalgam of Chi Bi and Chi Bi II, each of which weigh in at the same length as Red Cliff itself so you can imagine how much of the story was lost in translation. Luckily the Blu Ray release features both parts of epic in full and so restores all of the scenes lost to the cutting room floor. The main difference is in the rich background stories of the characters that make for a more satisfying context for the monumental battles. Woo’s metaphors may be a little unsubtle but his visualisations are stunning and there’s a lot more character and humour on display, particularly involving the feisty Chiling Lin and her mission behind enemy lines. It’s also very well paced considering its four and three quarter hour length and the stunning visuals lend themselves to the Blu Ray format perfectly. Part II may get a little too carried away with visual spectacle at the expense of coherent story telling, but this historical epic is certainly the best thing John Woo has done in many, many years.