In over 40 years directing movies, John Woo has honed a distinctive style that elevates violence to a state of grace. He specializes in carefully choreographed, self-consciously unrealistic death-dealing. Blood runs, spurts, and splatters as ambient sound is replaced with a swelling, operatic score. Slow motion effects and oversaturated colors invite viewers to savor every impact, every muzzle flash, every arterial gush. Red Cliff—Woo’s return to Chinese filmmaking after an extended and uneven string of work in the U.S.—is an epic spectacle of lush colors and balletic violence.
The film’s grandeur is a function of its setting. Where many of Woo’s earlier films have centered on seedy urban environs, Red Cliff takes place in the Han Dynasty of 208 A.D. The gritty cityscapes of Hard Boiled and A Better Tomorrow emphasized the claustrophobia of Hong Kong’s criminal class; Red Cliff offers spectacularly open fields of hand-to-hand combat. In one memorable scene, Woo’s signature white bird (a pigeon rather than the usual dove) takes wing over a military encampment. The camera follows, for several minutes, looking over the massed thousands of soldiers below. It’s an audaciously long take, blatantly stylized with computer-generated imagery, dreamlike but also specifically motivated—the pigeon’s eye-view.
The move’s source material also contributes to the dreamy tone. With co-writers Khan Chan, Cheng Kuo, and Heyu Sheng, Woo loosely based the script on Guanzhong Luo’s novel, Romance of the Three Kingdoms, itself based on the crumbling of the Han Dynasty at the beginning of the third century. The history has become a legend in China, and like all legends, it invites reinterpretation and revision. Red Cliff provides the barest outline of the tale, especially in the heavily edited international cut. (The two-part Chinese release runs nearly five hours, while the international release trades character development for a rather clumsy voiceover.) Many of the characters don’t act like recognizable human beings; rather, like many figures of legend, they stand in for ideals and beliefs.
Thus, when prime minister Cao Cao (Zhang Fengyi) asks permission of Han dynasty Emperor Xian (Wang Ning) to put down a rebellious uprising in the south, led by Liu Bei (You Yong) and Sun Quan (Chang Chen), he represents tyranny and oppression, rather than serving as a psychologically realistic individual. Likewise, Liu Bei and Sun Quan easily earn sympathy as generic upstarts. Red Cliff executes a well-known scheme, with the overmatched insurgents trying to outwit and out-moxie the massive army assembled by Cao Cao. Along the way, we meet Sun Quan’s tomboyish sister, Sun Shangxiang (Vicki Zhao), who provides some comic relief and a break in the often portentous dialogue. Sun Quan’s commander, Zhou Yu (Tony Leung Chiu-wai), anchors the film emotionally.
Apart from Leung’s nuanced performance, however, Red Cliff‘s characters are almost incidental, indistinct and sometimes evocative watercolor sketches, as the movie rushes from one action scene to the next. At a cost of $80 million, it’s the most expensive Chinese production to date, its massive battles reminiscent of Akira Kurosawa’s Ran. All of that money shows on the screen, in the lush set design, rich colors, and hyperkinetic battle scenes. Red Cliff is an overwhelming spectacle of violence. But that vast scope feels strangely limited.