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April 09, 2009

Red Cliff

red cliff 1.jpg

Chi Bi
John Woo - 2008
Zoke Culture Region 0 DVD

After seeing Red Cliff, the large number of nominations amassed for the Hong Kong Film Awards is less surprising. John Woo's film is meant to be seen on the big screen, the bigger the better. There are a few missteps, primarily the use of the zoom meant to underline in big strokes the seriousness of some of the characters' proclamations in the early parts of the film, and the battle scenes that are too overly fragmented. Based on the same source material as Three Kingdoms, Woo's film is certainly the better, although the overlapping of the stories is minimal.

Woo primarily is interested in the alliance formed by Zhou Yu and Zhuge Liang on behalf of their two kingdoms against the Han Dynasty. Played by Tony Leung Chiu Wai and Takashi Kaneshiro respectively, the film has some similarity with Woo's other films about men of action who are guided by idealism against those who are motivated primarily by self-interest. Zhou Yu and Zhuge Liang come to terms not by verbal dialogue, but through a musical duet on string instruments. Zhuge Liang endears himself to Zhou Yu and his wife initially by intervening in the breech birth of a horse. It is a scene that might seem extraneous to the main spectacle. The scene serves to quickly humanize Woo's main protagonists, men of power and position, interested in exercising that power and position judiciously, compared to the Han Dynasty's Cao Cao, who commands his large military force for disguised personal gain.

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One of the nicest moments is when Zhou Yu is introduced. The soldiers of Sun Quan are gathered to demonstrate their readiness to fight when they are silenced. A young boy is playing a flute, not badly, but some of the notes are off key. Zhou Yu walks up to the boy who is sitting with his grandfather. Asking for the flute, Zhou Yu takes out a knife, only to whittle a couple of the air holes in the flute, before handing the flute back. The narrative stops while the boy plays his flute, to an orchestrated sound track. It's the kind of scene that should remind some of how music is used in some of Sergio Leone's films, most famously with the character of Harmonica in Once upon a Time in the West. One of the best assets of Red Cliff is the justly nominated, rousing score by Taro Iwashiro, the kind of music that sets the pace for the rest of the film in the way that Elmer Bernstein and Miklos Rozsa would do in their best scores in the early Sixties.

John Woo's most famous Hong Kong films are the kind best described with the term "bullet ballet". The action direction here is by Corey Yuen. Using swords, spears, and bow and arrow, and working with teeming extras, there is less emphasis on individuals than in previous Woo films. There is time to admire one oversized, bellowing general who knocks down a horse with its rider, and Tony Leung pulling an arrow out of his shoulder to personally return it to the archer. Another change from prior Woo films is the inclusion of women in the action, with feisty proto-feminist Vickie Zhao leading her army of female archers.

The first of a two part film, Red Cliff actually ends before the legendary battle take takes place at the title location. It the film ever gets a theatrical showing in the United States, it could well be a severely edited version of the two parts. Seeing the film on DVD seems like a necessary compromise in order to view Woo's film in its entirety. I wouldn't call Red Cliff a return to form for John Woo in style, because that never left him when allowed to make films his way, but there is greater substance than in silly, if entertaining, Paycheck. Yes, the doves make an appearance as they do in other Woo films, although pigeons also figure in the story. One of the more spectacular shots follows one pigeon on flight from the South Palace over the hundred Han battle ship. Between that jaw dropping extended shot to the mountain scenery, for me, Red Cliff could best be described by the adjective I would not throw about lightly: breathtaking.

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Red Cliff is available from HK Flix, while Part II is available for advance orders.

Posted by peter at April 9, 2009 12:07 AM


i love the film...like u said..its breathtaking..
i cant wait to see the next one..

Posted by: MNie at April 9, 2009 03:01 PM

I'm an absolute fan of John Woo thx. I love so much Johnnie To too.
Have you seen theses videos about new Johnnie To's movie "Vengeance" on Twitch ?


it sounds great, what do you think about these behind the scene videos ?


Posted by: Vince at April 15, 2009 08:53 PM