If you’re not from Asia, or a student of its culture, it’s hard to understand how strong of a grip the “three kingdoms” period of Chinese history, a time of national disunity that lasted roughly from the start to the finish of the third century C.E., still has on contemporary culture in that part of the world. It’s an era that produced some of China’s most famous historical figures, and also one that inspired one of its greatest works of literature, the 14th century epic, The Romance of the Three Kingdoms. Whether it be Chinese produced TV shows or Japanese-penned manga series, stories from the “three kingdoms” time period are constantly being retold, and each new iteration builds on past depictions as much as it draws on the actual historical events.
Perhaps the closest analog in Western history would be the last century before Christ’s birth, when a staggeringly high number of legendarily historical figures, from Spartacus to Julius Caesar and from Cleopatra to Octavian, lived and interacted with one another, in the process creating one of the most important touchstones for Western history and art. Just as Western students today are asked to learn both the real historical details of Caesars life, read Shakespeare’s scripted version of his last days, and then possibly take a break to catch a high-budget miniseries about the Roman dictator on HBO, so does the average Chinese, Korean, Vietnamese or Japanese person grow up on a mixed diet of textbooks about Zhuge Liang and video games where they can play as Lu Bu or Liu Bei.
This is important to understand, because Red Cliff, the John Woo directed movie about one of the most important battles of the period, carried a significant amount of public interest upon its release in Asia. It is the most expensive movie ever produced entirely in Asia, and concerns an event which most in the Asian audience knew a hundred and one details about, but had never before seen onscreen in a theatrical release. There must have been a lot of different opinions about how the battle should be portrayed, and Woo had the difficult task of living up to such high expectations.
By all accounts he succeeded, with the film garnering critical acclaim and overwhelming financial success in the Asian market. Woo’s version of the Battle of the Red Cliffs, and the events that led up to it, are a combination of the historical record, the legends surrounding anthologized and made popular by The Romance of the Three Kingdoms, and his own history as a director of Hong Kong action films. It’s a combination that requires a fine sense of balance, and its success largely rides on the fact that Woo, for the most part, succeeds in finding it.
The film is made up of two acts (in Asia it was released as two separate films, while in the West it is coming out on DVD as a single, significantly condensed cut). It begins with prime minister Cao Cao (Zhao Fengyi of Farewell my Concubine) bullying the weak Chinese Emperor into allowing him to lead a military campaign against his old enemy, rebel leader Liu Bei (You Yong) and his likely ally, Sun Quan (Chang Cheng from Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon). When the Emperor assents, Cao Cao begins to march south, with a vast army in tow.
Cao Cao’s forces quickly find Liu Bei in Jing province, and Liu Bei’s army is forced to retreat even further south in attempt to protect the local civilians, though Liu Bei’s wife is tragically killed trying to save their young child from the encroaching soldiers. Grief stricken, Liu Bei sends his brilliant young strategist Zhuge Liang (Takeshi Kaneshiro of House of the Flying Daggers) to suggest an alliance with Sun Quan, ruler or Eastern Wu, which he sees as their last hope if they want to resist Cao Cao’s army.
Sun Quan’s advisors think war with Cao Cao will mean the death of their kingdom, but Sun Quan says he will join with Liu Bei if his military commander, Zhou Yu (Tony Leung Chiu-Wai from Hero) thinks it is the right decision. Zhuge Liang travels to the Zhou Yu’s encampment by the Red Cliffs on the banks of the Yangtze river, where after hearing Liu Bei’s emissary’s arguments, Zhou Yu reveals that he indeed wishes to fight Cao Cao, and in fact brought his troops to the Red Cliffs as he thought this would be the best place to take on the prime minister’s numerically superior forces.
Woo is known more for the high body-count of his previous action flicks than for attempting to explore any type of nuanced political landscape, but the way he carefully details the events leading up to the titular battle is done extremely well. The pacing is perfect and the main characters are all given distinct outlooks on the precarious state of their nation.
While Woo includes many of the myths propagated by Romance, such as the up-playing of Zhuge Liang and Zhou Yu’s influence on the events, he adds historical elements that make the film more interesting as result. Cao Cao, for example, is traditionally portrayed as a violent brute, but in Red Cliff Zhao plays him as a calm but deeply ambitious man, one who is both strict with his men but also undeniably likable. The underlying enmity typically said to exist between Sun Quan/Zhao Yu and Liu Bei/Zhuge Liang is also largely absent here, with the bonds of brotherhood that grow between these fellow freedom fighters being an important part of the battle’s human tale.
This is not to say that the film is entirely historically accurate. Many supernatural feats are ascribed to Zhuge Liang in Chinese literature, and while Woo cleverly tries to present these actions as being based on the strategist’s high level of scientific knowledge rather than magical powers, it doesn’t change the fact that historical records do not support the idea that any of these events actually occurred. On the other hand, it would be hard to imagine a story about Zhuge Liang which did not include the legendary tale of his sailing boats manned by mannequins dressed as soldiers past the enemy encampment, in order that he might collect the arrows shot at them to supply his ally’s ammunition-starved army. So it was probably smart of Woo to leave that part in.
The second act, detailing the battle itself, is as clever a blend of legend and fact as the first. Woo’s earlier films tend to feature indestructible heroes who can take down hundreds of enemies at a time without taking a scratch, and the director brings a little bit of that spirit to Red Cliff. Liu Bei’s generals, like Guan Yu, Zhang Fei and Zhao Yun, have almost superhuman fighting abilities, and many of the rebels’ early successes against Cao Cao rely on their ability to dispatch large numbers of his troops with only a spear or two to aid them. It’s more in the tradition of a martial-arts epic like Hero or Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon than a more serious project about ancient warfare. It’s fun, but Woo directs it in a manner that recalls an action-cartoon more than the graceful ballets presented by Zhang Yimou or Ang Lee.
That is all made up for by the final throw-down, which is probably the most exciting and perfectly paced battle scene since the Helm’s Deep showdown in The Two Towers, although the strategy behind it is far more convincing. Woo sticks with the traditional notion that Cao Cao commanded a vast force of over 800,000 men, although historical research indicates that he probably had about a quarter of the amount, but the point is Zhou Yu’s army is seriously outnumbered, and it will have to use every advantage it can find to even hope of defeating it’s foe.
The battle begins with a thrilling night-battle between the rebels’ boats and Cao Cao’s enormous but inexperienced navy, a sequence which includes a burning-arrow exchange which even Gladiator might envy. It then switches to an assault on Cao Cao’s fortified encampment, which ends in a frantic chase around the camp, as Cao and Zhao Yu stalk each other, each hoping to save their side by overcoming the other in personal combat. The battle represents a big chunk of the movie, but it never drags and the tension is never allowed to dissipate. It is also coherent, and the audience has no problem understanding why each action taken by the armies in important to their overall effort to triumph in the end.
Admittedly there is some silliness involving Zhuge Liang’s to-the-second-accurate wind predictions and Zhou Yu’s wife’s unrealistic attempts to stall the enemy army, but these are minor quibbles when it comes to an ambitious set-piece so successfully pulled off. Almost everything about the production of this film is as good as it can be, from the way the cinematographers capture the gorgeous scenery of Southern China, to the deftly-added CGI elements, as well as the wonderfully designed outfits which manage to look strikingly pretty on camera without falling into the common trap of looking more like renaissance-fair costumes than actual clothes and armor.
The only other issue one might take with this film is the acting, which consists mainly of long, tearful-pride-exhibiting stares, and stock speeches about the nobility of a character’s cause. Only Zhang as Cao Cao gets to do anything interesting besides killing enemies and strategizing about how to kill enemies, and both his and Tony Leung’s characters suffer as a result of the aforementioned silly side-plot involving Zhou’s wife (which features an even sillier sex-scene). It’s possible, however, that this part of the story makes more sense in the original version, as the longer cut apparently focuses a lot more on the political and romantic intrigue that surrounded the battle. Western audiences might also have benefited from the greater amount of historical context given in the first half of the Asian release. (For interested viewers in the West, the longer cut is also being released as an “International Version”)
Still, it’s not enough to ruin a movie this epic. As Western audiences have learned from disasters like Troy and Pearl Harbor, making an epic is not simply a matter of throwing a bunch of money and big name stars together, and while Woo had both at his disposal, he obviously didn’t let that make him any less determined to build a movie which stands both on its own and as the definitive portrayal of one of the most legendary events in his culture’s history. He apparently encountered a deluge of troubles when producing this film, from last-minute drop-outs by major actors to set-destroying weather-catastrophes and the unfortunate death of a stunt-person, but the end result is something grand enough to live up to the long history behind it.
Woo deserves all the praise he has received for so convincingly combining both the history and the spirit of this landmark event.