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Red Cliff Parts 1 and 2 (2008/2009) June 3, 2009

Posted by ayasawada in Film.
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John Woo returns to far east cinema with an ambitious take on a legendary Chinese tale. The Romance of the Three Kingdoms is a literary epic, at once China’s Shakespeare and Lord of the Rings, and a worthy source for the country’s most expensive movie to date.

The film(s) focuses on one of the most famous stories in the work, the Battle of the Red Cliff, when two of the kingdoms united to defend themselves from the Imperial Army. I’m not even going to try to summarise the plot. The word ‘epic’ also tends to mean convoluted mess of characters and subplots, so read the Wikipedia entry if you’d like to know the historical details. The significant factors are three outstanding leaders, two accomplished armies, a gang of legendary warriors and a war that may or may not have been started over a woman.

It’s so much that the film was released in two parts in Asia, but will be cut down for the West. That’s a good and a bad thing, in my humble opinion. On the one hand, it’ll help move things along. At times, Red Cliff does resemble a long, meandering period drama, and you could easily see this being a TV mini-series if Asia had a HBO equivalent. But while the condensed version will get you to the action quicker, it will lose the appreciation of politics, strategy and relationships that really make the story gripping.

Ashamedly for a Chinese person, I’m not exactly familiar with the Romance stories or the history of China. So I was fascinated by the tactical genius on display here (what can I say, I’m a sports fan too) and the mix of scientific knowledge, wisdom and brilliance that lent many of these great men an air of mysticism. Some aspects of the story have clearly been embellished for the screen (the idea of a princess undertaking a spy mission, is, quite frankly, ridiculous), but accepting that blend of history and fantasy that the likes of Lord of the Rings has brought us, it’s not really too much of a problem.

Of course, Lord of the Rings also brought us epic battles on a scale never before seen. Woo aims to repeat that, and possibly surpass it, on the Asian scene. The battles, particularly the finale, are drop dead spectacular and certainly rival anything Peter Jackson came up with. The fact that it’s elegantly choreographed martial arts may even push it ahead (and with John Woo’s trademark doves to boot).

The film(s) is beautifully crafted with an all-star cast (Tony Leung and Takeshi Kaneshiro to name just two) and high standards all round. It’s well-worth seeking out the two-part edition to appreciate this on all levels: action, drama and history. I certainly hope the single film edition will do well enough to warrant an ‘extended edition’ release in the West.

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