In Red Cliff (Chi bi), the people of China’s southlands face a power-hungry Prime Minister bent on taking over the entire country. Compelling story telling, exquisite visuals, and captivating battle scenes weave together to create a brilliant cinematic tapestry.
After conquering the entire Chinese northlands in the name of the Emperor, ambitious and ruthless General Cao Cao (Fengyi Zhang), who appoints himself Prime Minister, sets his eyes on the southland. In order to get there, he has to enter the territory protected by Liu Bei (Yong Yu). Desperate to protect the lives of his people, Liu Bei asks his strategist, Zhuge Liang (Takeshi Kaneshiro) to ask the leader of the southern province Zhou Yu (Tony Leung Chiu Wai) for help. When it’s impossible to ignore the realities, Zhou Yu decides to join the fight against Cao Cao. They make their stand at Red Cliffs, their stronghold.
The plot flows like water from a pitcher. The writers, Chan Khan, Kuo Cheng, Sheng Hyu, and writer-director John Woo chose the speed and temperature of the water. As the audience sits and watches the story unfold, they can feel the warmth of the characters, the crashing of the shields and the cool calm of strategy. There isn’t much emotion they can’t extract from the audience. At one point I found myself with my mouth wide open, sitting on the edge of my seat, my heart pounding, and my eyes furrowed.
The costuming adds incredible depth to the film. The elite are so clean, their clothing flowing and regal. The soldiers’ uniforms are cheap and dirty looking. The soldiers’ shields glimmer in the beginning of battles and dull at the end. The subtle changes in costuming as the story moves on gives the movie depth and makes the story believable, because the unconscious red flags are not going off.
Woo takes the time introduce the ideas of formations, discipline and tactics to the watcher. They don’t just out-fight the enemy, they out-think them. He has enough respect for the audience that he is willing to cut them in on the how, as much as the what and why.
The war heroes in the story aren’t supernatural, they aren’t magical; they are just extraordinary men doing extraordinary things. Their hand to hand combat is noticeably better than all the rest of the soldiers but it doesn’t cross the line into fantasy.
The martial arts in Red Cliff kick ass. (Ok, I had to.) I found myself dodging spears, stepping left and right to avoid northern soldiers. Everyone who takes up most of the frame in any battle sequence knows how to get the audiences’ heart rate up. Heck, there is even a man who mows through horses like a dwarf – and that will make perfect sense once you see the movie.
There’s real humor in Red Cliff too. It is obvious that Woo doesn’t throw it in there just for the sake of making the story funny, but that even in little slices of life, like those in Red Cliff, life presents little bits of humor. In order to make a complete story, even a war story, humor must be present.
Girly-girls will enjoy the sensual and romantic aspects of the film. More non-traditional women will enjoy the active role women play. There are two women in the movie, one with unrestrained femininity and one tomboy. Both do their part for the war.
The battle scenes captivate, not only because of the graphic violence but because of the subtle emotion, steely strategy and attention to visual details. Do not miss this movie. It’s worth the time to go to the small-run theater and see this film. Man or woman, old or young, everyone will enjoy this masterpiece.