Red Cliff Revisited

About a year ago, I reviewed the 2 1/2 hour version of Red Cliff. Now that I have seen the original 4 hour 42 minute version (on a big screen, no less), I feel I can do justice to a film in which, as I stated in my original review, there appeared to be a masterpiece lurking underneath.

That masterpiece doesn’t surface in the full version (which is one film split into two parts, much like Lord of the Rings was one film split into three parts), but what does surface is a much better film that the international release.

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About a year ago, I reviewed the 2 1/2 hour version of Red Cliff.  Now that I have seen the original 4 hour 42 minute version (on a big screen, no less), I feel I can do justice to a film in which, as I stated in my original review, there appeared to be a masterpiece lurking underneath.

That masterpiece doesn’t surface in the full version (which is one film split into two parts, much like Lord of the Rings was one film split into three parts), but what does surface is a much better film that the international release.  Among the scenes that were missing:

1.) Small moments between the lesser main characters, like the generals in Liu Bei’s army, which fleshes out the characters more.

2.) A sequence in which Zhao Yun (Jun Hu) attempts to save Liu Bei’s family from Cao Cao’s (Fengyi Zan) army.

3.) A tiger hunt, which Zhou Yu (Tony Leung) uses to convince the young leader of the Southlands, Sun Quan (Chen Chang), to fight Cao Cao and form an alliance with Liu Bei (Yong You).

4.) A subplot in which Zhou Yu tricks his friend, Jiang Gan (Shi Xiaohong), in order to get rid of Cao Cao’s naval commanders, Cai Mao (Yizhen) and Zhang Yun (Jia Hongwei).

5.) Much more of a subplot involving Sun Shangxiang’s (Zhao Wei) infiltration of Cao Cao’s camp.

6.) Longer fight sequences, particularly at the beginning of the first movie and the end of the second.

Part One takes place near the end of the Han Dynasty.  Cao Cao, the Prime Minister to the Han Emperor, has suppressed all the rebelling warlords.  In a bid for more power,  he convinces the young Han Emperor Xian (Wang Ning) that Liu Bei and Sun Quan, warlords to the west and south, are rebelling against the Han Dynasty, and must be conquered.  He attacks Liu Bei’s forces first, which include the ranks of three famous generals: Guan Yu (Basen Zhabu), Zhang Fe (Zang Jinsheng), and Zhao Yun.  It also includes Liu Bei’s young and brilliant strategist, Zhuge Liang (Takeshi Kaneshiro), who receives permission from his master, once the battle is over, to form an alliance with Sun Quan.  To do so, he must convince Sun Quan’s viceroy, Zhou Yu, to join forces with Liu Bei and fight Cao Cao.  Part One ends with the combined forces achieving their first victory over Cao Cao’s army, and introduces all of the main characters.

Part Two (appropriately called Red Cliff II) begins with short video montages, detailing the main events that occurred in the last film.  The main focus of this film is the Battle of Red Cliff, for which Part One  set up the ground work.  In this film, Sun Shangxian (Sun Quan’s sister) has infiltrated Cao Cao’s camp as a spy, sending messages back to Zhuge Liang via dove.  An outbreak of typhoid hits Cao Cao’s camp,  which he turns to his advantage by sending the dead bodies to Red Cliff.  There, the epidemic kills so many soldiers that Liu Bei decides to retreat with his men and regroup, breaking the alliance.  Zhuge Liang stays with Zhou Yu and his army, however, and they each devise a strategy: Zhuge Liang’s to retrieve 10,000 arrows (to make up for the arrows that Liu Bei took with him), Zhou Yu’s to get rid of Cao Cao’s two naval commanders.  The movie then follows their strategies leading up to the battle itself, which takes up the rest of the film.

Critiqued separately, Part One is the better film, as it introduces the main characters to us and develops them more than Part Two does.  Part Two, on the other hand, has three of the most famous set pieces in the two films: Zhuge Liang’s retrieval of 10,000 arrows,  Sun Shangxian’s reveal of her map of Cao Cao’s camp, and Xiao Qiao’s ruse to keep Cao Cao from launching his attack until the winds favor Zhou Yu (her husband) and his army.  Plus, as a fourth set piece, you have the battle itself, which takes up almost a fourth of the second film’s run time.

Since John Woo supplemented Romance of the Three Kingdoms with the more historically accurate Records of Three Kingdoms when making this movie, some of the characters from the Romance behave more as their historical counterparts did.  Also, the Battle of Red Cliff is based more on history than on fiction.  Still, people who have read Romance of the Three Kingdoms and seen this film tell me that there are some differences which, I feel, will not be found in either work.  For example, Cao Cao calls Zhou Yu’s wife “the most beautiful woman in the world,” and hints at having invaded the Southlands just to take her from her husband.  Sounds like Woo was thinking of another famous woman in literature when he inserted that detail in the films.  Similarly, there is a friendship that develops between Sun Shangxian and a member of the opposing army that she nicknames “Pit.”  And, in the spirit of Lord of the Rings, lesser characters are occasionally used for comic relief.  Luckily the comedy isn’t as heavy-handed as it is in LOTR, and the comedic characters do not always play the fool.

Woo uses zooms, crane shots, wide shots, close-ups, mid-range shots, and every other shot at his disposal to portray one-against-many and many-against-many battle sequences.  To prepare for these films, he had his cinematographers watch films such as Lawrence of Arabia and wanted some shots to be “like Kurosawa” (This was in an article published in 2009, featured in SIFF Cinema’s lobby, which I read in between films.  Sadly, I cannot remember which magazine it was from).  Like Lord of the Rings, the result is an epic story, but with even greater attention to individual characters, and movies as concerned with strategy as they are with the battles themselves.

As I said in my original review, the CGI arrows bothered me, though only in the battle at the end of Part One (where safety concerns may have necessitated their usage).  What I noticed with the restored battle sequences were more cases in which real arrows were used.  And the one-against-many fight sequences, especially in the “turtle formation” battle that ends Part One, are as brilliant as ever.

Also, I described the international version as “ingenious.” I would still use that word to describe its longer brethren.  What other movies combine unique fighting techniques, brilliant military strategies, alliances decided through notes on a guzheng, characters who can predict the weather, quotes from Chinese literature, and a decisive battle  decided by a cup of tea?  Solid from beginning to end, I only slightly wished for a longer film (or films), so as to develop the characters even further–including, as per my original review, Xiao Qiao, who only gets a little more face time here.  Still, there are enough riches to be found in each film for them to be considered, like Lord of the Rings, two of the most entertaining movies of their genre, and while these films are not as vast as the three films that make up the Rings trilogy, they also don’t suffer from their faults.

In conclusion, Red Cliff and Red Cliff II are good, if not great, films, and highly enjoyable to watch.  If you’re going to see these films, however, see them back-to-back in the theater.  The small screen doesn’t do them justice.

(Cast list obtained from Wikipedia and cross-referenced with IMDB.)

Author: Greg Salvatore

Writer. Voice Actor. Humanist. Feminist.

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