Director: John Woo
Cast: Tony Leung Chiu-Wai, Takeshi Kaneshiro,
Hu Jun, Chang Chen, Zhao Wei, Zhang Fengyi, Lin Chiling, Shidou
RunTime: 2 hrs 20 mins
Released By: Scorpio East Pictures, MediaCorp
Raintree Pictures & GV
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
(In almost every measure, nothing short of a magnum
Review by Gabriel Chong