Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Red Cliff

If you are in the mood for an epic story of political struggle, armies clashing, brave leaders facing down superior forces, clever tactics, requited and unrequited love for a beautiful woman then Red Cliff might well be the film for you.

The version of Red Cliff I saw at the NZ International Film Festival was the "Readers Digest condensed" two and a half hour version, shortened down from the original two part version (which was 280 minutes long). I could not see any obvious signs that I was watching a shortened version. I didn't notice any unfinished plot lines or unexplained events that might indicate where the cuts were made.

The events in the film are historical. The Battle of Red Cliff marked the end of the Han Dynasty and the start of the era of the Three Kingdoms. But you don't need to know that. The relevant political background is simply explained at the beginning and other political relationships become clear during the film. The Imperial Chancellor Cao Cao brow beats the young Emperor into letting him embark on a military campaign south against Liu Bei (who had risen from poor beginnings to be a provincial leader) and Sun Quan (a more powerful southern leader) citing them as rebels against the Emperor. Cao Cao attacks Liu Bei first and defeats him. Liu Bei sends his military strategist Zhuge Liang to arrange an alliance with Sun Quan whose advisers are keen to avoid a war. Finally the scene is set for a showdown at Red Cliff on the Yangtze River. Zhuge Liang is the character we follow for most of the film, contrasting with the machismo of all the soldiers and generals, he moves from place to place quietly giving good advice, predicting the weather and arguing for a coalition against Cao Cao. He makes friends with Zhou Yu (the military commander on the river), and along with information from a female spy, they come up with the strategies that defeat Cao Cao.

This is apparently the most expensive film made in Asia and it shows in the scale and lavishness of the battle scenes and attention to detail in the more intimate scenes. Director John Woo is able to take the action seamlessly from mass battle scenes to individual heroics and back again. He gives us enough dialogue to let us know what is going on while leaving plenty of time for the action scenes.

Ian's rating 3.5/5

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