Red Cliff (2008)
Director John Woo’s Red Cliff is a dramatically poetic movie based on Romance of the Three Kingdoms a historical novel written by Luo Guonzhang. If you aren’t familiar with the Three Kingdoms story – it chronicles the ambitions of three men, love and the wonderful Generals that followed their lead. The three men are Liu Bei, Sun Quan, and Cao Cao. While Liu Bei is often depicted as a man of honor, who became blood brothers with Generals Guan Yu and Zhang Fei in order to fight for a better China, Cao Cao is remembered as a power hungry Prime Minister, who punked his boy king into handing him the reigns behind an army of nearly 1 million men. In the tale Sun Quan is the sophisticated, young king of Wu who unites forces with Liu Bei to defeat Cao Cao in one of history’s most ridiculous cases of overwhelming odds losing to supreme strategy. This strategy was afforded by China’s greatest war-tested strategist, the genius Zhuge Liang. Utilizing disease, fire and The Art of War, these three men carved dynasties into the landscape of China, and their triangle of bloodshed is depicted in John Woo’s Red Cliff.
For viewers out there that are skeptical about foreign movies, Red Cliff makes an excellent case for cinematography and acting. While John Woo could have gone with a more action-oriented, super fast, popcorn movie, he opted for more dynamic pacing, which bordered on poetry in motion for this viewer. The movie felt personal, and although the portions of history are romanticized immensely, it still stayed within the lines of accuracy to the recorded events of that battle of Red Cliff from the year 208. For people who know Chinese military history, you will be more than pleased at the depictions of Zhuge Liang (Takeshi Kaneshiro), Zhou Yu (Tony Leung), Sun Quan (Chen Chang), Liu Bei (Yong You) and Guan Yu (Ba Sen Zha Bu). I was most impressed with the directing as Red Cliff manages to follow the life of all these Generals without putting too much attention on one. Although Zhou Yu and his bride are given a bit more focus than the others, it is Takeshi Kaneshiro’s Zhuge Liang that steals the show.
Author’s Note: Historically this would have made sense with a strategist as brilliant as Zhuge Liang, the man invented a rapid-fire crossbow, floating military lanterns and was an astute student to Sun Tzu’s The Art of War. Having a strategist of his caliber would turn the tides of a war literally, and it is to this fact why he is one of the figures worshipped today.
Takeshi Kaneshiro is the kind of actor that draws you in to his charisma without having to utter a word. That being said, having a less handsome, less charismatic, and less seasoned actor play this role may not have worked. Red Cliff’s Zhuge Liang was a lot less likeable than I imagined the real military genius to be since Takeshi’s attempt at a confident smile could be misconstrued as mocking and the flicking of his feathered fan – cocky. Still, the portrayal overall, the wardrobe (Zhuge was one clean dressing son of a gun), and the brilliance was brought to life by Takeshi Kaneshiro and with all the super-human warriors, musicians and romantics around, it is he that holds your focus for the full 3 hours.
The third impressive element of Red Cliff is the fight choreography and filming. There are scenes where droves of warriors crash with their spears, lancing and slicing each other to shreds, only breaking the cadence to allow entrance by a legendary General displaying his godly fighting skills. While the events, look and emotions were real in Red Cliff, when a General got down to dance reality took a seat to make way for the accounts of legends, fables and stories about their prowess. The Generals were supermen, they have been portrayed in history as supermen, illustrated as supermen and in this movie, they fight like supermen. The most impressive moves had to be that of General Guan Yu, running across shields and hurling the deadly spear into his foes while taking the rest on bare-handed. Seeing the Generals in battle is almost like a reward the viewers receive for dealing with an actual plot and story in between the conflict (snark off).
Red Cliff is nothing short of amazing, if you have an attention span. It is however a lengthy movie for people who aren’t familiar with Chinese history or the Romance of The Three Kingdoms. I was really impressed with this film from start to finish and although I griped a bit with the portrayal of Liu Bei (being that I’m a bit of a fanboi), I found all of the players to be immensely accurate and interesting. If you are interested in broadening your movie horizons a tad beyond domestic shores (if you read this from the USA), I would suggest that you check out Red Cliff as soon as possible. In terms of military movies and historical sagas it will number up there in one of my Spicy Favorites, I can’t wait to see it again with my history loving brother.