Wednesday, November 25, 2009
Red Cliff (赤壁)
Almost every Chinese has heard, if not read, the classic novel Romance of the Three Kingdoms (三国演义) which was written in the 14th century. The novel is about the civil war among three war lords that took place more than a thousand year ago—at the end of the Han Dynasty (汉朝 206 BC - 220 AD). After the novel, those historical figures become household names, such as intelligent Zhuge Liang (诸葛亮), boorish Zhang Fei (张飞), sensitive Liu Bei (刘备), devoted Guan Yu (关羽), bright Zhou Yu (周瑜), and arrogant Cao Cao (曹操). They have appeared in numerous plays and literatures for hundreds of years, and everybody seems have his own images in mind about them. If the novel is made into a motion picture, anything short of a grand epic is unjustified.
Legendary director John Woo's (吴宇森) "Red Cliff" (赤壁 | China 2009 | in Chinese | 148 min.) takes up the challenge and tells the thousand-year-old story to the world audience. With a budget more than $80 million, this is the most expensive film ever made in Asian.
It is impossible for one feature film to tell all the stories in Romance of the Three Kingdoms (CCTV's TV serial has 84-episode). John Woo chooses the best known Battle of Red Cliffs (赤壁之战) to make his film. Actually, he made two films: "Red Cliff" (赤壁 | China 2008 | 140 min.) and "Red Cliff: Part II" (赤壁 : 决战天下 | China 2009 | 142 min.).
However, John Woo wants to tell the story to audiences in the entire world, even they are not familiar with that period of Chinese history and with those war warriors. Therefore, for the Western world, including the US, he combines these two films into one "Red Cliff" to be released, cutting the running time into half.
The combine version is faster paced and the story line is easier to follow, without losing any spectacular battle scene.
In 208 A.D., ambitious Cao Cao (Zhang Fengyi), the Primary Minister of Eastern Han Dynasty, leads millions of well-equipped soldiers to invade much weaker warlords Sun Quan (Chang Chen) and Liu Bei (You Yong). In order to fight Cao Cao, Liu Bei sends his chief advisor Zhuge Liang (Takeshi Kaneshiro) to convince Sun Quan that making an alliance is the only way to confront Cao Cao. Relying on intelligence, opportunities, the higher morale, and the art of war, even with smaller army, the alliance defeats Cao Cao in this historical battle.
John Woo is a master of choreographing splendid fighting sequences, even in the most chaotic settings. Although Battle of Red Cliffs is a great story to begin with, John Woo magically brings that piece of history to the modern world one more time with fantastic art design and vivid imagination. One should see this film only on a big screen to fully appreciate its magnificent scale. (In that regard, playing any film on a tiny screen in an aircraft should be a crime.)