Thursday, March 5, 2009

Red Cliff

After a forgettable stint in Hollywood, director John Woo comes back to his native China. With this film made with an estimated budget of $80 million US (the most expansive Asian movie up to now), we now can appreciate the man that we were praising in the time of The Killer and Hard-Boiled. Forget the guns and enjoy Woo's unsuspected talent to direct an epic film! As a historical film, Red Cliff is one film among many others that has an unique effectiveness. Just like Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, Red Cliff's maturity lies in its ability to jump from one point of view to another and also to build a coherent storyline although the film is said to be based on the classic novel Romance of the Three Kingdoms.

The first part of a story that was divided in two films takes place in 208 A.D.,near the end of the Han dynasty. What we now know as China is divided in three kingdoms, because the Han monarchy conquered the Northern kingdoms. As a matter of fact, the two other remaining kingdoms are in the South: Eastern Wu, which is led by Sun Qan (Chang Chen), and Shu Han, led by Liu Bei (You Yong). Although these two kingdoms don't intend to do war, Cao Cao (Zhang Fengyi), the Prime Minister of the Han monarchy, wants to conquer them and, by extension, eliminate Sun Qan and Liu Bei.

In fact, the Prime Minister convinced Emperor Xian, a puppet ruler, that Sun Qan and Liu Bei covet the throne and are preparing a rebellion (which turns out to be false). After his troops fell back at the Battle of Changban, Liu Bei sends Zhuge Liang (Takashi Kaneshiro), his chief advisor, on a diplomatic mission in Eastern Wu to seal an alliance between Liu Bei and Sun Qan. Although Sun Qan doesn't have any military experience, he becomes convinced that he has to ally with Liu Bei in order to repel Cao Cao's invasion.

Once again, watch this movie if you've been waiting after all those years to see John Woo at the helm of a serious film. Although Red Cliff is based on the novel Romance of the Three Kingdoms, Woo and his fellow scriptwriters, showed a lot of maturity by relying mostly on the historical record Chronicle of the Three Kingdoms rather than the novel itself. Thanks to that, we get a relatively accurate historical portrayal of the major characters rather than mere one-sided caricatures. For instance, although Cao Cao would have been regarded as a blood thirsty politician by the other major characters, the film makes justice to the character by showing us with a certain depth his lust for power, his desire to go to war and even the way he feels about his "followers".

Given its ability to jump from one major character's point of view from another, Red Cliff is one of those rare war movies that offer a study about why some people want to go to war. For instance, while Sun Shiangxiang (Zhao Wei), Sun Qan's sister, believes that women should care for their kingdom as much as men, Sun Qan's on the other hand, wants to prove to others that he's truly a man of honour like his late father who was nicknamed "the Tiger" at 19 years old. While the film doesn't hopefully glorify war, it's one of the few that explore human being's relation and feelings toward war despite the numerous war scenes.

As for the well-chosen cast, they manage to make the film work the same way a whole hockey team works as a team to win the Stanley cup. From what we see, nobody, whether they play a minor or a major role, vies for our attention because they don't need to do it. While no actor stand out for their performance, the cast should be acclaimed for its ensemble performance. All in all, Red Cliff shouldn't dismay John Woo's fans and also enthusiasts of historical films.

Rating: 4/5

Red Cliff
China (2008)
Length: 146 minutes
Genre: War drama
Screenplay: John Woo, Chan Khan, Kuo Cheng and Sheng Heyu
Director: John Woo
Starring: Tony Leung, Chang Chen, Zhao Wei, Takashi Kaneshiro, Zhang Fengyi and Shido Nakamura

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