In 208 A.D., in the final days of the Han Dynasty, shrewd Prime Minster Cao Cao convinced the fickle Emperor Han the only way to unite all of China was to declare war on the kingdoms of Xu in the West, and East Wu in the South. Thus began a military campaign of unprecedented scale, led by the Prime Minister, himself. Left with no other hope for survival, the kingdoms of Xu and East Wu formed an unlikely alliance. Numerous battles of strength and wit ensued, both on land and on water, eventually culminating in the battle of Red Cliff.
Remember those Koei strategy games of yesteryear based on the historical novel Romance of the Three Kingdoms. The novel itself was based on the historical record Chronicle of the Three Kingdoms. Director John Woo uses this historical record as a blueprint for his epic film Red Cliff. Actually there are scenes in this film that will remind you of the once popular Dynasty Warriors games… scenes where the almost super powered generals individually fight dozens upon dozens of enemies at once in extraordinary feats of strength. The overall battle segments are fantastic and the unique strategies employed are just… fun to watch. The scene with the 100,000 arrows is nothing short of brilliant.
After taking in this 5 hour experience, it’s really hard to describe this film with words other than epic! After a luke warm Hollywood stint, John Woo has gone back to his roots and created his crowning masterpiece. With interesting characters, an engaging story, and beautiful cinematography, Red Cliff is sure to put Woo back on the map for Asian cinema. Originally, John Woo started his career in Hong Kong, establishing himself as a legendary action director with films like The Killer and Hardboiled, the latter being his last Hong Kong flic before going Hollywood. Over the years, his US films (with the exception of Hard Target) have slowly deteriorated in style, succumbing to many Hollywoodisms. Personally I’m very happy to see Woo back in true form. One of my personal favorites is a film he did from 1979 called Last Hurrah For Chivalry which he wrote and directed. Woo has mastered the use of betrayal and sacrifice through tragic heroes in his storytelling, and it’s a trait common through all of his Hong Kong films. Red Cliff is no different, and to me marks the return of a great director!
Red Cliff was originally released as 2 films with a year between them, with the first big battle ending the first movie. For lack of an easier comparison, it’s very similar to the dividing point between The Two Towers and Return of the King (in structure alone). The film is subtitled and I wouldn’t recommend it any other way. The subtitles (on the Blu Ray) are very crisp and easy to read with a very competent translation. The almost 5 hours… yeah, 5 hours…runtime moves at a consistent pace, keeping the viewer glued to the screen from beginning to end. Personally, I don’t know how they could have shaved over 2 hours for the American theatrical release (I am reviewing the extended release). In the first hour, there are moments of confusion as you try and figure out what’s going on… stick with it as it quickly falls into place.. and once all the key players are established, you’ll have no problem following the story. Apparently the condensed version has a 5 minute narrated opening that explains who the players are, which might have been helpful, but still not worth sacrificing this far superior 5 hour cut. And even at 5 hours you’ll probably want to watch it again… it’s that good. If you’re a fan of Asian cinema, John Woo, or even just a history buff, this film is worth every minute. I might also add… my girlfriend who has absolutely no interest in Asian cinema, sat through the entire 5 hours without nodding off once, in fact she really enjoyed it!
The Blu Ray Video is sharp and beautiful to behold. I’m not gonna go into detail about the transfer as there’s many sites that can give you all the tech specs. I just care if it looks good, and Red Cliff certainly does! The audio rings in at 5.1 which still sounds incredible, but apparently the Chinese release through Mei Ah supports a full 7.1. I don’t have 7.1 surround, so I’ll never miss it.