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  Publicity Stills of "Red Cliff II"
(Courtesy of GV)

Genre: War/Action/Drama
Director: John Woo
Cast: Tony Leung Chiu-Wai, Takeshi Kaneshiro, Hu Jun, Chang Chen, Zhao Wei, Zhang Fengyi, Lin Chiling, Shidou Nakamura
RunTime: 2 hrs 20 mins
Released By: Scorpio East Pictures, MediaCorp Raintree Pictures & GV
Rating: PG

Opening Day: 9 January 2009


The story of RED CLIFF takes place in 208 AD in China during the Han Dynasty. Despite the presence of an emperor, Han Xiandi, China was then divided into many warring states.

The ambitious Prime Minister Cao Cao, by using the Emperor as his puppet, waged war on a kingdom in the west, Xu, ruled by the emperor’s uncle, Liu Bei. Cao Cao’s ultimate goal was to wipe out all the kingdoms and install himself as Emperor to a unified China. Liu Bei sent his military advisor Zhuge Liang as an envoy to the Wu Kingdom in the south, trying to persuade its ruler Sun Quan into joining forces. There he met Wu’s Viceroy Zhou Yu, and the two became friends amidst this uneasy alliance.

Enraged to learn that the two kingdoms have become allies, Cao Cao sent an army of eight hundred thousand soldiers and two thousand ships down south, hoping to kill two birds with one stone. Cao Cao’s army set up camp at Crow Forest, across the Yangtze River from Red Cliff, where the allies were stationed.

With the food supply running short, and the army vastly outnumbered by Cao Cao’s, the allies seemed doomed. Zhou Yu and Zhuge Liang had to rely on their combined wisdom to turn the tide of battle. Numerous battles of wits and forces, on land and on water, eventually culminated into the most famous battle in Chinese history, where two thousand ships were burned, and the course of China’s history was changed forever. That was the Battle of Red Cliff.

Movie Review:

Anyone with some knowledge of Chinese history will know how the Battle of Red Cliff turns out. But what is so fascinating about the Battle is the manner in which the David vs. Goliath victory was won.

Last we saw- Liu Bei (Yong You) and Sun Quan (Chang Chen) had formed an alliance against the invasion of the Han dynasty’s tyrannical Prime Minister Cao Cao (Zhang Fengyi). Encamped on opposite banks of the Yangtze River, the vastly outnumbered armies of Liu Bei and Sun Quan were accordingly no match for the much superior Northern army.

But war is as much a clash of might as it is a battle of wits. At the heart of the Battle is not the two warlords Liu Bei and Sun Quan but their respective tacticians- Viceroy Zhou Yu (Tony Leung) and master strategist Zhuge Liang (Takeshi Kaneshiro). It is their combined intellect that will be the cornerstone of the Battle’s outcome amidst fresh challenges- most prominently, Liu Bei’s sudden decision to break their alliance, citing overwhelming losses.

Part deux of John Woo’s epic astutely places its emphasis on the mind play between the two brilliant thinkers and Cao Cao himself. Clocking in at over two hours, Woo takes his time in laying out meticulously the strategising of the opposing camps leading up to the climatic final Battle. And what an intriguing progression it is!

Where most Chinese costume drama epics of late have been content to wow with just spectacle, John Woo wisely stresses the precision of ancient warfare, in fact, the very Art of War itself. Consequently, this finishing chapter of the Red Cliff saga becomes a thinking man’s battle- one of not just brawn but also brains. It is firmly to John Woo’s credit (and deserved praise), who also co-wrote the screenplay, that he does not dumb down the proceedings.

Just as importantly, John Woo has also placed an equal, if not more, careful focus on character. Besides developing the central friendship between the allies Zhou Yu and Zhuge Liang, he also stresses the motivations of each of the other characters- Cao Cao, Sun Quan and Liu Bei. One particular subplot involving Sun Quan’s sister Sun Shangxiang (Zhao Wei) and a commander from Cao Cao’s rival camp also turns out surprisingly touching.

Indeed, John Woo has not forgotten that there is still humanity that can be found on both sides of the battlefield in the midst of the inhumanity of war itself. Lest one forgets that who the real casualty of warfare is, there are several scenes that underscore how the thousands of individual lives lost are no doubt genuine tragedies in themselves. As Zhou Yu so aptly puts it, gazing across the body-littered grounds, there is no victor in war.

Like they have proven in the first part, Tony Leung and Takeshi Kaneshiro bring much gravitas to their respective roles of Zhou Yu and Zhuge Liang. Amidst the sound and fury of war, the cool air of composure they bring to their characters is the understated core of the battle. The duo also share an easy chemistry with each other, be it on the battlefield or in more erudite activities (like appreciating tea and playing the gu zheng). But the scene-stealer here is undoubtedly Zhang Fengyi. With narrowed eyes and sinister smile, he gives a commanding presence as Cao Cao- from his character’s arrogance right up to his humiliating defeat.
Certainly, the almost 5 hour runtime spread over two parts has afforded a broad canvas for John Woo to paint an intricate portrait of the battle of Red Cliff- in not just broad strokes but also in smaller, more intimate touches. But one gets the feeling that by the time he reached the climactic battle, there must have been some measure of fatigue.

For if there is one gripe of sitting through his lengthy exposition, it is sure to be that the final battle is not as thrilling as it should be. Of course, it is still rousing spectacle, but somehow it loses its momentum along the way and doesn’t manage to be as awe-inspiring as one would expect.

Nevertheless, John Woo’s take on the Three Kingdoms saga still proves to be a resounding success. As a second parter, it brings the Cliffhanger of its predecessor to a breathtaking finish. As a whole, one can only marvel at the effort and attention that making such an epic compels. Indeed, it is not too far to say that John Woo has gone and created the seminal Chinese imperial war drama, bound to be the benchmark for other similar flicks to come.

Movie Rating:

(In almost every measure, nothing short of a magnum opus)

Review by Gabriel Chong


. Red Cliff (2008)

. Three Kingdoms: Resurrection of the Dragon (2008)

. An Empress And The Warriors (2008)

. The Warlords (2007)

. The Curse of the Golden Flowers (2006)

. A Battle of Wits (2006)

. Seven Swords (2005)

. The Myth (2005)

. House of Flying Daggers (2004)

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