There is a point in John Woo’s Red Cliff when the alliance between Liu Bei (Yong You) and Sun Quan (Chen Chang) has suffered what seems to be an irreversible setback. Their adversary, the evil Prime Minister Cao Cao (Fengyi Zhang), has sent the dead bodies of his typhoid-ridden soldiers down river to Red Cliff, where they have infected many of the soldiers in Liu Bei’s and Sun Quan’s smaller armies. Liu Bei, knowing that he cannot lose any more men, leaves with his remaining troops, carrying his typhoid stricken men out of quarantine, much to the shock and chagrin of his allies and of his military strategist, Zhuge Liang (Takeshi Kaneshiro). Then, more bad news. Since Liu Bei took his arrows with him, Sun Quan’s army is 98,000 arrows short. Liang tells them not to worry. He will get the arrows.
How he achieves this is ingenious, and “ingenious” might be the best word to describe this movie. The fighting techniques employed by the heroes of Romance of the Three Kingdoms will make you gasp with awe, and the big battle sequences will remind you of The Two Towers and The Return of the King in scale. Unlike those two movies, however, the armies in Red Cliff employ actual battle techniques, and, indeed, the focus of this movie is on the battle of wits and the strategies employed between Cao Cao and the two strategists for his adversaries: Zhuge Liang and Zhou Yu (Tony Leung Chiu Wai), the latter of whom is the viceroy for Sun Quan. These scenes (including the one in which Liang gets the 98,000 arrows) are among the best in the movie.
What is lacking somewhat is character development. With so many characters in one movie, and the movie being chopped from its original four and a half hour length to two and a half hours for international release, this version wisely focuses on fleshing out Zhuge Liang and Zhou Yu, while leaving the other characters in the background, so that the damage to the main story is minimal. Still, the ending suffers a little as a result, since its effect depends more on our feelings for these characters and their sacrifices than it does any flashy battle sequences or unique strategies (not to be confused with the final battle leading up to this sequence, which is outstanding). According to this review in the Village Voice, most of the two hours that were excised from the film flesh out the characters more, and indeed, one of the triumphs of the 800,000 word book on which it’s based is its complexity (no, I have not read the book: this is according to Wikipedia).
Another way that this film feels like The Two Towers is that it starts in medias res, but without the benefit of having an earlier movie detailing what has happened up to that point. Indeed, the Red Cliff episode in Romance of the Three Kingdoms occurs somewhere in the middle of that story, with much to come afterwards (don’t worry, this movie doesn’t end on a cliffhanger). Though voiceover narration is lacking in the Chinese version, that appears to be where the four and a half hour version begins, as well (which is actually two films, again begging the question of why they weren’t released separately overseas, instead of mashed together as one film–did the distributors think Americans aren’t smart enough to appreciate the epic scale of these films, much as they appreciated the epic scale of Lord of the Rings? Or is it a question of subtitles, which is another dumb argument?). And while an entire synopsis of the two films is included here, I would not read it until after you’ve seen the two and a half hour version (better still to see the two movies that comprise the longer version first, which can be found on yesasia.com, provided your DVD player can support formats outside of Region 1). Of course, if you live in Southeast Asia, you can buy the movie at your local video store.
I only have one caveat about the battle scenes. Once or twice I wasn’t sure who were the good guys and who were the bad guys (John Woo mostly avoids this problem by focusing on recognizable characters from each side fighting soldiers from the other side, and even with so much fighting going on, I only lost track of the good guys once or twice throughout the entire movie). The other problem I have concerns the CGI. For the most part, it’s used brilliantly, but the CGI arrows in this film look like CGI arrows, and during one battle sequence, some men appear to be firing nothing from their bows (this is in a long shot during the Turtle formation sequence). Having said that, the rest of the effects are excellent, and Woo wisely focuses much of his attention on the numerous one-versus-many fight sequences that dominate the shortened version of his two films,which is his strength. After all, fight sequences are what make John Woo John Woo.
As for the acting, a little too much smiling and knowing grins go on between some of the good guys, but the actors who play Zhuge Liang and Zhou Yu are excellent in their respective roles, as is the actor playing Cao Cao (though this movie does not make him as complex as Liang and Yu). I hope there is more in the original version of Yu’s wife, Xiao Quiao (Chiling Lin). She plays a very important role near the end of this movie, but I felt her character deserves to be fleshed out more than this shortened version allowed (though it tried).
On its own, this two and a half hour version contains a masterpiece sandwiched between two less satisfying bookends. Perhaps when I see the complete version, I can label the whole thing a masterpiece. For now, I encourage you to seek this out this shortened version on the big screen, be awed by its ingenuity, and ask for the four and a half hour version for Christmas. Or ask for the book. Even if you don’t celebrate Christmas.