Movies · Reviews

Foreign Objects: Red Cliff (China)

By  · Published on December 4th, 2009


Foreign Objects travels the world of international cinema each week to look for films worth visiting. So renew your passport and get your shots, because this week we’re heading to…


It’s a full fifty-nine minutes into John Woo’s new film, Red Cliff, before the first white dove appears. I don’t mention that to be cheeky (well maybe a little cheeky), but instead I’m bringing it up because it shows a certain amount of restraint on the part of the dove-loving director. It’s one of the very few instances where Woo’s film seems to take it’s sweet time, and while that sounds like a criticism it actually isn’t for a couple reasons. One, the version of Red Cliff currently playing in limited US release is actually a truncated two and a half hour cut of two complete films (that were themselves over two hours each). And two, this leaner domestic cut packs an incredible amount of action into it’s fast-moving frame leaving you little time to pause and catch your breath. Of course, an over abundance of action risks a possible short-shrift of character development…

The time is 208 AD, the place is mainland China, and the air carries the rusty taste of bloodshed. Dramatic, isn’t it? As years of civil war wind down, a power-hungry general named Cao Cao (Fengyi Zheng) has convinced the malleable emperor that some regional leaders in the west and south are over-stepping their bounds and in need of further military intervention. The two rebel warlords in question are Liu Bei (Yong You), an older warrior who has seen a lifetime of battle but still desires a fight for freedom, and Sun Quan (Chen Chang), a younger leader with limited experience but a strong and unpredictable nature. Cao Cao’s armies vastly outnumber the soldiers available to the two men, so they combine forces and align themselves with a brilliant military strategist named Zhuge Liang (Takeshi Kaneshiro) to take on the marauding general. The ensuing battle of Red Cliff is one of China’s most significant historical events as evidenced by the very popular series of videogames that have come out over the past twenty years. Although to be fair, more cultural significance should probably be paid to the fairly well-known 14th century novel called “Romance of the Three Kingdoms”…

Part of Liang’s plan involves bringing in another powerful man, Zhou Yu (Tony Leung), a contented leader with little interest in an ongoing war. And why he would even consider going off to war when the beautiful Xiao Qiao (Chiling Lin) is waiting for him at home is beyond me… especially when Cao Cao has a well-known lust for her, and going to war just brings her one step closer to falling into his possession. The three rebel leaders and the strategist are joined by a handful of fiery but loyal generals and an army that pales in comparison to the 800,00+ under Cao Cao’s control. And not to be outdone by the men, Princess Shang Xiang (Vickie Zhao) also insists on joining the fray and becomes an invaluable asset as she works her way undercover into Cao Cao’s camp. “When a loser joins forces with a coward,” Cao Cao says to an underling, “what can they accomplish?” The answer comes in the form of non-stop battles, bloodshed, and beat-downs.

Did you get all that? Good, because the character introductions and plot machinations come fast and furious in between flights of arrows and sweeping overhead shots. You don’t have to be a racist to lose track of who’s who and start mixing up the various generals and commanders (although if you are a racist shame on you). At least one of the minor generals is immediately identifiable based on his almost Yeti-like facial hair, but the others tend to blend together amongst the skirmishes. None of them receive any real attention aside from their battlefield actions with the dramatic focus instead reserved mostly for the friendship between Liang and Yu. That’s fitting as Kaneshiro and Leung are the most recognizable faces here, and while they both do well by their characters it’s Leung who truly shines as a man in love with his wife who discovers new friendships and a forgotten ability to trust others.

But you don’t come to a John Woo movie for the characters, drama, and bromances do you? No, you come for the action… and Woo delivers here bigger and better than he ever has before.

Woo’s first period action epic (we won’t count Windtalkers) is a masterful collage of swordplay, martial arts, and clashes of majestic proportions. Thousands of men move across the battlefield in scenes consisting of both live actors and some CGI work, and whether seen from high above or down and dirty in the trenches the action is spectacular. Arrows fly silently through the air before coming to rest in the noise and commotion of bodies and hardware below. Liang’s military strategies come into play as he attempts to outwit Cao Cao with troop movements and formations that often involve creative and visually amazing shield arrangements. One strategy finds the soldiers creating a geometric maze constructed of their own bodies which then fluctuates to trap enemy horsemen. Another sees a deceptively unmanned armada head to sea for the sole purpose of collecting the arrows that are shot into their frames. Some of the battlefield overheads may be a little reminiscent of the opening of Ridley Scott’s Gladiator (which can’t be a bad thing), but Woo soon makes them his own as the camera moves down to a more personal level.

The director’s trademarked fluidity and grace are on full display as the various heroes wind their way through the carnage. Spears slice and dice from atop horseback and blood splashes to the ground from severed limbs and slashed armor. Historical realism is traded in for artistic license more than once as the legendary generals take on wave after wave of Cao Cao’s soldiers in frenzied but poetic swordfights and continue to do battle with eight arrows or more jutting from their flesh. One scene even pays homage to his own Hard Boiled as one of Yu’s generals attempts to rescue his commander’s infant son and is forced to fight his way through an enemy horde with the child strapped to his back. It’s all well executed and beautifully paced stuff that even at 150 minutes will never leave you bored or uninterested.

Woo’s best films remain the ones he made in Hong Kong before emigrating to Hollywood… The Killer and Hard Boiled still hold up as kinetic masterpieces. His experience in the US however ranges between the fun (but ridiculous) Face/Off to the instantly forgettable Paycheck, and while he lasted here longer than many imported talents do it’s good to see him back on his home turf where he’s able to retain creative control. (Speaking of which, where’s my director’s cut of Hard Target goddamnit!) If you can handle a five hour film and prefer your action to come packaged with in depth character development I suggest you seek out the two-part international cut on DVD. I’d still recommend heading to a local theater though and taking in the sights of this shorter version on the big screen. You don’t get to see many action films of this scale and caliber these days, so don’t pass up the opportunity now.

Red Cliff is currently playing in limited theatrical release.

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Rob Hunter has been writing for Film School Rejects since before you were born, which is weird seeing as he's so damn young. He's our Chief Film Critic and Associate Editor and lists 'Broadcast News' as his favorite film of all time. Feel free to say hi if you see him on Twitter @FakeRobHunter.