Film Review: Red Cliff

John Woo’s sword-and-sandals war epic Red Cliff was released in Asia in two parts over the course of 2008 and 2009, clocking in at roughly 280 minutes and breaking the Chinese box office record previously held by Titanic

Given the success of prior martial arts crossover blockbusters (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon; Hero; House of Flying Daggers) it is no surprise that Red Cliff was quickly selected for a Western theatrical release.

What is surprising is that with Hollywood’s poor track record when it comes to foreign releases (consider that Hero was released here as “presented by Quentin Tarantino” to attract interest based on the name of a mere financier or that 2008’s Swedish Let The Right One In is already being remade by an American) Woo’s epic seems to have been given the treatment it deserved.

Its halves soldered together and pared down almost by half to a more manageable length of 150 minutes, the film by all rights ought to feel like Red Cliff’s Notes, an incomprehensible two hours of alliances, betrayals, and bloodshed among only vaguely distinguishable characters.

Somehow, this was averted.

Based on historical records of the reign of third-century Emperor Xian, Red Cliff follows the hasty alliance formed between southern warlords, Sun Quan and Lu Bei, to thwart the invasion of power-hungry Chancellor Cao Cao, who has intimidated the Emperor into approving his mission of supposed pacification.

Red Cliff

Directed by John Woo.
Starring Tony Leung, Takeshi Kaneshiro, Zhang Fengyi, Chang Chen, Jun Hu, Chiling Lin.

Sun Quan and Lu Bei are surrounded by lieutenants and warriors to rival anything in Homer’s Iliad (in fact, many are familiar faces: Sun Quan’s general is played by Tony Leung Chiu-Wai, known to American audiences from Hero and Ashes of Time, while Lu Bei’s chief advisor is played by Takeshi Kaneshiro, of Flying Daggers fame), so the resulting warfare rivals anything previously put to film.

Red Cliff features exactly the kind of jaw-dropping choreography we have come to expect from Asian martial arts crossovers, including some incredible single-handed heroics, which is to say balletic, slow-motion bloodletting – just the sort of thing that was sorely absent from Wolfgang Petersen’s Troy. But even then, Woo ups the ante with large-scale cavalry maneouvres and naval battles after the fashion of sprawling period epics from 1950s Hollywood.

Of course, much has also been lost in translation: the dichotomized Asian release found time to dwell on the cultures at stake, lingering on the profound importance of music and calligraphy and including a full-length tiger hunt. Battles have been condensed or omitted entirely, character arcs are truncated (a life-or-death wager between two major heroes is completely gone, even though the arrow-theft plot it motivates remains in this release), and the husky-voiced American narrator sounds like he fell out of a romance-comedy trailer.

But most important, despite its omissions, the shortened release feels surprisingly true to the original. The action remains intact, the usual operatic melodrama survives unscathed, and the cast members deftly inhabit the roles of mythic warrior-heroes embodying the ideals of courage, capability, and dignity.

It is impossible to recommend anything but Woo’s original two-part film for prospective DVD and Blu-Ray owners, since it is now readily available in all its four-and-a-half-hour glory. But it would be equally impossible not to recommend that anyone interested in ancient warfare, martial arts cinema, or sweeping Asian melodrama see Red Cliff for themselves on the biggest screen possible; that the abridgment was done faithfully only sweetens the deal.