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The art of Woo
Ancient China war epic lifts a film master out of purgatory

Red Cliff

Rated:R
Studio:Magnolia Pictures
Director:John Woo
Cast:Tony Leung, Takeshi Kaneshiro, Zhang Fengyi, Chang Chen, Shido Nakamura
Genre:Action
Our Rating:

Red Cliff, a new Chinese film about the nearly 2,000-year-old battle that ended a dynasty, lacks the narrative grandeur that might have been lent by a filmmaker like Zhang Yimou (Hero); it’s absent the gritty, in-the-trenches character studies of the best war films, like The Longest Day and A Bridge Too Far. And as hard as it tries, Red Cliff just can’t muster the heavily filtered mythmaking of the war films of Steven Spielberg and David Lean.

And thank goodness for that.

Finally arriving in America (albeit in shortened form) after a record-breaking run in China, Red Cliff, the most expensive Asian-financed film of all time, stands as a return to form for director John Woo, a one-time master whose American films (Mission: Impossible II, Paycheck, Windtalkers) have rendered his talent unrecognizable. With a historical epic at his disposal – one that involves thousands of spear-wielding villagers-turned-soldiers and the use of ancient military formations like “the tortoise” – Woo has found the life in his eyes once again. His direction of Red Cliff feels as joyous and erratic as a kid in an Army-Navy shop. No time for intricate emotion or development – there’s fighting to be done! And after that a duet between generals on Chinese string instruments! Then a sex scene, and back to more fighting! Red Cliff is refreshingly absent of pretense and loaded with big-screen eye candy.

The plot, based on ancient scrolls detailing the pivotal Battle of Red Cliffs, concerns the power-mad self-proclaimed Prime Minister Cao Cao (Fengyi Zhang) and his bloodthirsty efforts to gain control over the South after the brutal campaigns that successfully garnered him all of Northern China.

The impossibly outnumbered warlords of the South – Liu Bei (Yong You) and stoic Sun Quan (Chen Chang) – form an alliance against Cao Cao and put to use Liu Bei’s secret weapon: the strategist Zhuge Liang, played by angel-faced Takeshi Kaneshiro in a role reminiscent of Orlando Bloom in the Lord of the Rings trilogy.

Liang, a quiet figure, has great knowledge of the Southern area and its relation to nature, and his closeness to geographic energy proves to be a game-changer.

If all this sounds confusing, it is. Woo never stops to allow the audience to catch up; it’s a minor detriment compounded by Woo’s equally sympathetic treatment of fighters on both sides. (He points out many times that most of Cao Cao’s soldiers are essentially hostages.) He gives us no clear bad guys and good guys. At a crucial moment of the climax, the clear winner of the battle looks out at his people and declares, “There is no victor here.”

It’s a nice sentiment, but in the case of Red Cliff, a thoroughly enjoyable, visually stunning epic, the victor is John Woo. Now let’s hope he can stay far away from Nicolas Cage and ride this momentum back to his rightful place as the Prime Minister of Action.

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