Red Cliff (2008) Dir. John Woo 18 June 2009Posted by jordanfarley in Cinema Review.
Tags: John Woo, Tony Leung
Hollywood can do cruel things to even the best directors. After crafting genre classics such as Hard Boiled, A Better Tomorrow and The Killer in his native China John Woo’s move to Hollywood, in retrospect, could be described as ill-advised. Only Face/Off and guilty pleasure Hard Target are worthy of your time and the less said about his producing duties the better (Bulletproof Monk anyone?) But with his first native film in more than ten years Woo has demonstrated a sensational return to form that proves there’s still life in the slow-mo supremo yet.
It should be mentioned before I go any further that the version of Red Cliff currently showing in UK theatres, despite its 2hr 28min run-time, is an extremely truncated version of the two Red Cliff films released in China. I haven’t seen the original two part Red Cliff but can safely say that the film works in its current form, if anything it could have done with a little trimming so whether or not you see this as an issue will depend on your tolerance for lengthy run-times, Labyrinthine side-plots and cultural references which are likely to fly over your head.
The film takes place in 208 A.D. during the Han Dynasty in China, a time of war in a divided country. The Emperor Han, manipulated by his Prime Minister Cao Cao, declares war on the East and South provinces, his massive army to be led by Cao Cao himself. All events lead to the titular Red Cliffs, protected by Grand Viceroy Zhou Yu (Tony Leung Chiu Wai of Hard Boiled, In the Mood for Love and Infernal Affairs) and master strategist Zhuge Liang (Takeshi Kaneshiro) against an overwhelmingly powerful navy, culminating in an epic battle which will decide the fate of a nation.
Even in its cut down form it’s hard to do justice to the complex tapestry of characters and events Woo and his fellow screenwriters have put together. Woo generally isn’t known for his subtlety or rich narratives but in this regard Red Cliff is easily his most accomplished film to date. They did a good job in the editing room of making a coherent narrative out of the whole epic tale, although like most war films it is easy to get characters muddled up at times. The relationship between Zhou Yu and Zhuge Liang lies at the heart of the film, based on respect and admiration they are easily the most well realised characters, it’s a shame the villainous Cao Cao was too much of a comic book caricature for his resolution to have any genuine emotional impact.
Woo is best know for his action however and on this front he doesn’t disappoint with several standout set-pieces and some unexpectedly brilliant tricks up his sleeve. If you’ve seen any of Woo’s previous work (or any Zhang Yimou films) you’ll know what to expect. Hyper-stylised to the point that it’s almost ludicrous, the choreographed sword work is beautiful to watch but manages to convey a visceral impact many eastern martial arts films lack. After a generation of war films portraying battle as a chaotic hell it’s strange to see a film which makes you appreciate why Sun Tzu called his legendary treaty The Art of War. In spite of my love for all things gruesome it was the strategic brilliance of the central characters which left me with the biggest smile on my face, in particular one ingenious method of stealing 10,000 arrows from your enemy.
While not quite as good as Hero (a film with which it shares the closest resemblance), Red Cliff is easily Woo’s best work in almost twenty years. It may meander a little at times and for those unfamiliar with the eastern style of film making it may require you to suspend disbelief a little more than you’re comfortable, but on the whole it is a remarkable return to form and makes me wish John Woo never steps foot in Hollywood again.