Red Cliff (2008)

4 stars

John Woo returns to form with this epic historical drama with lots of action to spare.

Dir. John Woo
2008 | China/Hong Kong | Action/Drama | 146 mins | 2.35:1 | Mandarin
NC16 (passed clean) for bloody war violence

Cast: Tony Leung Chiu Wai, Takeshi Kaneshiro, Lin Chiling, Zhang Fengyi, Chang Chen, Zhao Wei
Plot: The first chapter of a two-part story centered on a battle fought in China’s Three Kingdoms period (220-280 A.D.).
Awards: Nom. for 4 Golden Horses – Best Supporting Actor, Best Art Direction, Best Makeup & Costume Design, Best Visual Effects
Source: Batrax Entertainment

Accessibility Index
Subject Matter: Moderate
Narrative Style: Slightly Complex
Pace: Normal
Audience Type: Mainstream


Review #297

(Reviewed in theatres – first published 22 Jun 2008)

Spoilers: No

The “Battle of the Red Cliff” is one of the most significant chapters in one of the greatest literary Chinese novels of all time – “The Romance of the Three Kingdoms”. From print to screen, veteran Hong Kong filmmaker John Woo has finally realized his filmmaking ambitions after more than two decades.

Since the 1980s, Woo has been an influential figure in Hong Kong cinema, directing several crime pictures with actor Chow Yun Fat such as Hard Boiled and The Killer. His Hollywood ventures in the late 1990s were mixed, from the stylish action-thriller Face/Off to the awful sci-fi actioner Paycheck.

With a record breaking US$80 million budget and a crew of thousands, Woo now has the financial muscle to direct the most ambitious movie on Chinese history since Bernardo Bertolucci’s Oscar-winning The Last Emperor in 1987.

Red Cliff is filmed in two parts, the second episode to be released early 2009. With a story of such enormous complexity, it’s a shrewd tactic by Woo. Fans of the “Three Kingdoms” novel will be delighted with Red Cliff; the film is mostly faithful to its literary text, and gives its characters the proper development.

The battle sequences are plentiful and often last longer than expected. They bear the trademark of Woo’s unique action style – slow-motion fights that are violent and bloody which somewhat pushes the limits of its NC16 rating. Some of the most fascinating aspects of the battles lie in the scheming tactics of the two armies.

“We must fight even if we cannot win.”

Credit to Woo and some astonishing CGI wizardry, these are accomplished with stunning results. The drama in Red Cliff is also excellent; insightful humor and quiet, romantic scenes help to ensure that the film has its moments of tenderness and beauty (a rarely observed aspect of Woo’s films).

The cast features a mix of newcomers and veteran actors including Tony Leung and Lin Chiling. Most of them meet expectations though none of them stand out. There are two extraordinary sequences in Red Cliff – the thirty-minute ‘bagua formation’ ambush sequence, and during the final ten minutes when a CGI-ed tracking shot of a white bird (a John Woo trademark) flies from friendly to enemy territory, soaring across thousands of naval ships.

The music by Taro Iwashiro in Red Cliff is thus far the best of 2008, offering captivating themes that blend well with the visual splendor. I’m not surprised if it gets nominated for an Oscar for Best Original Score (as if it would).

Red Cliff reminds of Akira Kurosawa’s Kagemusha, with its epic scale of story and battle tactics. In fact, I dare say it’s a better film than Kurosawa’s work though it is less accomplished artistically. John Woo has done a remarkable job for Red Cliff considering it is his first foray into the war epic genre. It is certainly worth the wait and hype.

Grade: A-




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