Wednesday, February 3, 2010
Review: "Red Cliff"
The Battle of Red Cliffs means diddly to the average American, but for the Chinese it's up there with Gettysburg and Normandy. It was a pivotal moment in their history, marking the end of centuries of rule by the Han Dynasty. The battle itself and the figures involved in it have grown into legend, much debated and much romanticized.
Director John Woo's epic retelling is a fantastic undertaking -- budgeted at $80 million, China's most expensive film ever -- and a sheer knockout of a war film.
The battle scenes are staged on a massive scale, yet the presentation of military strategy is so precise it feels intimate, like we're seeing a battle between the warlords' minds in an added layer above the bloody struggle on the ground.
It's a medieval version of "Saving Private Ryan," with resonant human stories intertwined with the mayhem of combat and the teachings of Sun Tzu's "The Art of War."
According to the history books, the principal figures were three warlords: Cao Cao (Fengyi Zhang), a power-hungry general who browbeat the weak emperor into appointing him prime minister; Sun Quan (Chen Chang), a young but ambitious lord; and Liu Bei (Yong You), an older general with a long history of defeat.
Cao Cao convinced the emperor to declare Sun Quan and Liu Bei outlaws as a pretense for invading their kingdoms to the south. The pair joined forces to defeat Cao Cao, despite being vastly outnumbered by his massive army and navy of 800,000 men.
But Woo -- who co-wrote the screenplay with three others -- concentrates on the relationship between the men who sit behind the thrones.
Tony Leung plays Zhou Yu, Sun Quan's viceroy, while Takeshi Kaneshiro plays Zhuge Liang, military strategist for Liu Bei. (I know, the names are hard for English speakers to keep track of, but the film has no trouble distinguishing the characters.)
Both men are humble and peaceful in nature, but are experts in the ways of war while despising the human cost. Zhou's wife, Xiao Qiao (Chiling Lin), is a renowned beauty who is desired by Cao Cao -- there's even the suggestion he launched the war entirely to possess her.
Probably about half the film's 2½ hours are taken up by battle. Scenes of large-scale combat are notoriously difficult to depict clearly and emotionally -- watch the battle sequences from Oliver Stone's "Alexander" to learn how stultifying failure can be.
Woo, who's shown himself to be a master of individual fighting ("Face/Off," "Mission Impossible II"), proves equally adept on a much larger stage involving hundreds of extras, complex sets and computer-generated images.
I especially liked the sequence where Zhuge, his army perilously low on arrows, cleverly contrives a way to "steal" a large supply from the enemy.
The hand-to-hand fighting is embellished in the modern style of depicting Eastern combat -- the laws of gravity and physics holding only modest sway over the ability of the heroes to leap into the air or take on a dozen soldiers at once.
But while exaggerated, I never found the action spinning into silliness. Perhaps that's because "Red Cliff" isn't a mindless flick reveling in war for its own sake, but approaches the subject with its head and its heart.