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2014/11/09

Red Cliff

by John Bloner, Jr.


"Don't hurt yourself, Dad," my teenage daughter said as I leapt from the sofa and slashed the air with a butter knife, while crying out,"Crouching Tiger!"

As my toes tapped carpet, I hissed, "Hidden Dragon!"

I admit this feat played better in my head. I'm not exactly Roger Ebert with my film reviews and bear no resemblance to Bruce Lee, yet in that year of 2000 I wanted to share my joy about Ang Lee's motion picture, "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" after I had just seen it on the big screen.

"Crouching Tiger", as well as other films in a hybrid form of Hong Kong cinema, including the focus of this month's article on John Woo's nearly five-hour motion picture, "Red Cliff", reminds me of why we go to the movies. These films demand a large canvas, carrying the pageantry and emotions found in opera, while often containing a quiet hero who stays to himself, but who employs unique skills when a situation calls for his action. Violence is prevalent in "Red Cliff", but the choreography employed in combat leaves me breathless after each viewing. In this regard, "Red Cliff" is not "Rambo" or "Die Hard"; it's "Top Hat" or "Red Shoes."


Chinese filmmaker John Woo left his native country to make movies in Hollywood, turning out "Face/Off" and "Mission Impossible II" to box-office success before he returned in 2007 to helm a historical drama,"Red Cliff", based on a battle from early 3rd century China, when that country's imperial army of north waged war on the Yangtze River against the allied forces of the south.

The film clip below gives a glimpse into the action found in "Red Cliff", but does not reflect everything that the picture brings to the viewer. How could it? "Red Cliff" lasts almost five hours. Over 2,000 people worked on its set.  It was not only the most expensive, but also the highest-grossing film in Chinese history.


Director John Woo wanted to make "Red Cliff" over 20 years earlier, but lacked the capital and the technology to make his dream a reality. Instead, he made his reputation with action films, both in China and in Hollywood, where he helmed "Face/Off" with John Travolta as Nicolas Cage (and Cage as Travolta) and "Mission Impossible II" with Tom Cruise.

Returning to China in 2007, he was rewarded by the Chinese government with the funds and the freedom to film "Red Cliff". No one told him what he could or couldn't do with his film. There were no executive meetings to tamper with his vision. He received his budget and was allowed creative control over his project.

Filmmaker John Woo with his actors, portraying soldiers of the imperial army
"Red Cliff" has all of the ingredients of an epic:

1. It has a hero. (Several of them.)
2.  Many people's lives depend on him (and, in the case of "Red Cliff", they depend on her too).
3. Its costumes and physical settings are jaw-dropping.
4. Its musical score carries you along on the long journey. (Thanks to Taro Iwashiro & the Tokyo Metropolitan Symphony Orchestra.
5. They are expensive to produce.
6.  Their running time is typically over two hours. ("Red Cliff" last 288 minutes.)

What this description doesn't tell you is that many of the most memorable scenes in the film are quiet and tender. In the film clip below, a training exercise is interrupted by the song of a child's flute. Watch as the scene moves from chaotic to compassionate to majestic in only three minutes and thirty seconds.


"Red Cliff" is a study in contrasts. The commander of the northern army is impulsive, ruthless, and wields a force of fighters far greater in number than all of the soldiers that the south can muster. By sheer size, he believes he can overpower his opposition and bring unity to China.

The southern kingdoms have a tenuous bond. It could collapse at any time, leaving them even more vulnerable to attack than if they would work together.

A military strategist, Zhuge Liang, embodies the best and worst qualities among them. He is a brilliant strategist, able to take apart an army several times the size of his own forces with careful planning and attention to the land and skies, using dust and wind as his allies. However, he is also indecisive, a character trait that nearly kills him. The story of "Red Cliff" is more than a depiction of men at war. It reveals the war going on inside each man--aggression versus pacifism, compassion versus callousness, and impulsiveness versus deliberation--and how the outcome of an inner struggle can reveal a person's character.

Face/Off of a musical kind: Zhuge Liang (Takeshi Kaneshiro) and Zhou Yu (Tony Leung)
The bond between the kingdoms of the south is not strengthened through the writing of a treaty or a meeting between its warlords, but through music--a 3rd century version of dueling banjos (or in this case, dueling guqin zithers). In the photo above and video below, strategist Zhuge Liang (the bearded one) and the rival southern warlord's advisor, Zhou Yu, say a lot about themselves without uttering a word.


My favorite part of "Red Cliff" doesn't take place until two hours into the film when Sun Shangxiang, a younger sister to one of the south's warlords, infiltrates the northern army and befriends a sweet-natured boy, Sun Shucai, in her disguise as a fellow male soldier. I was reminded of Shakespeare's heroines in the story between them.

They have nicknames for each other. She is "Piggy" to his "Pit", a reference to his strong appetite, a.k.a. a "bottomless pit".   She can carry her disguise as a boy because of her extensive training in the martial arts and use of the sword and bow, while she manipulates Pit to make drawings of the enemy encampment and to escape capture from fellow soldiers who identify her as a spy.

Sun Shangxiang (Zhao Wei) is a skilled equestrian, martial artist, swordsman and archer
When "Red Cliff" was released to an international audience, its running time was dramatically reduced by about one hour and twenty minutes, removing the story of Piggy and Pit. This is equivalent to performing "Romeo and Juliet" minus its two title characters.

Zhao Wei is not only one of China's most popular actors, she is also, according to Forbes Magazine, one of its most popular celebrities. Along with her film roles, including "Shaolin Soccer" and "Painted Skin: The Resurrection", she is also a film director (her debut film, "So Young", arrived in 2013) and pop singer. 

Actress Zhao Wei (Sun Shangxiang aka Piggy) and actor Tong Dawei (Sun Shucai aka Pit)
"Red Cliff" has been released on DVD/Blu-Ray in its original release time and in the abridged version. There should be no decision on the version selected. "Red Cliff" reminds me that a film's running time should not be decided by the average limits of bladder control or someone's perception of an audience's attention span. Would you crop the Mona Lisa so that visitors to the Louvre would not be distracted by her hands or its rural setting of northern Italy? 


Learn more about "Red Cliff" at imdb.com.

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