RogerBW's Blog

Red Cliff 08 December 2022

2008 war, dir. John Woo, Tony Leung, Takeshi Kaneshiro: IMDb 1 and 2 / allmovie 1 and 2. A true historical epic, based on the Romance of the Three Kingdoms.

Where does one start? This was released as a pair of films in the Chinese market, 288 minutes altogether, but cut to about half that length in the West. And it was John Woo's return to directing, in China, after he'd single-handedly invented the Heroic Bloodshed and gun-fu style in Hong Kong, then made a series of decent but frankly rather lacklustre films in Hollywood.

But I think the most important thing is this: yes, there is some CGI, and bits of it look quite naff even for the day. But when we see a hundred or a thousand soldiers doing things on the battlefield, there are actual people in actual costumes doing those things, and this gives the battle scenes a weight and immediacy that for me CGI superheroes just can't match.

It's 208/209 AD, the end of the Han dynasty, and if you were brought up in China you probably did the Romance of the Three Kingdoms at school. Cao Cao the evil chancellor gains the Imperial authority to bring the rebellious southern provinces to heel, and battle ensues.

Takeshi Kaneshiro playing Zhuge Liang is the protagonist here as far as there is one – but one of the interesting things about the story as presented here is that, while many heroes do impressive things, this isn't a matter of one man or one idea winning the battle, but rather of everyone's efforts combining to produce the victory. Still, his is probably the biggest part, as he leads an embassy from Liu Bei (You Yong) to Sun Quan (Chang Chen), with the aim of persuading Sun that trying to make peace with Cao Cao will do his lands and people more harm than fighting will.

There are parts here that seem very heavy-handed. Zhuge Liang is a great tactician, and a master player of whatever that plucked instrument is, and brilliant enough to sort out a difficult foaling without even knowing much about it. Sun Quan can hear, over a massed military drill, a peasant boy's flute that's out of tune, and correct it with a couple of knife strokes. And a tiger hunt is very symbolic, as well as beautifully shot in the mist.

Cao Cao in the Romance is the big villain, of course, but there's something more of subtlety here: a speech in the sick-tent about how he's missing his small son makes it look as though he might genuinely believe in the Imperial ideal as well as being evil. Or, of course, he could just be manipulating his audience. As I perceive it, though, he's also punished for being a parvenu: when Zhou Yu's wife Xiao Qiao (over whom the chancellor's been obsessing for years) distracts him with a tea ceremony, he becomes wrapped up in it to the exclusion of the attack he's meant to be launching, and I see that as signifying more than anything else his own insecurity and desire to get appearances right. A real aristocrat would say "the right way to serve tea is the way I like to serve it"; Cao Cao doesn't have that assurance. Or maybe I'm just reading too much into it.

There's a significant role for Zhao Wei (Vicki Zhao) as Sun Shangxiang, Sun Quan's sister, who historically went on to marry Liu Bei but here is mostly acting as a covert operative behind enemy lines. (And there's an in-joke I actually get: Zhao also played Mui the tai chi baker in the excellent Shaolin Soccer (2001), so when Sun Shangxiang gets involved in a cuju game she knows just what she's doing.)

This is an historical epic, done on the scale it deserves; and for me at least it's also great fun.

Once more if you want more of my witterings you should listen to Ribbon of Memes.

  1. Posted by DrBob at 12:27pm on 08 December 2022

    I really like this. I went to see the 2.5 hour version at the local cinema, then was delighted to find that the DVD version was the whole 5 hours. Though quite a lot of the extra 2.5 hours is Zhuge Liang being a Mary Sue by showing off his horse vet skills.

    I'm sure there is something cultural I was not getting in the "duelling banjos" scene with that plucked instrument.

    Hmm. Must watch it again.

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