Red Cliff (2008)

July 10, 2010 § Leave a comment

Directed by John Woo, Red Cliff is an epic film and an epic accomplishment. At over four hours running time (beware the edited version), it isn’t a film that feels long or tiresome, even as it takes time out to explore characters and the fractured political landscape of China in 208 A.D.

In short, Chancellor Cao Cao (Zhang Fengyi) uses unification of the country as an excuse for power and harsh conquest, and Red Cliff is the story of his struggle against smaller, but much more motivated forces. It’s human nature to favour the underdog, just as this film does.

The film is closer to dramatic mythology than historical accuracy, with a mixture of battle tactics that seem realistic enough and the kind of floating high-wire fighting we’ve seen in kung-fu films. It’s slightly jarring at times, but somehow it all works. The battle scenes are terrifically impressive even if the CGI seems a little overdone — at least, it’s hard to believe quite so many arrows in the air — but it’s easy to forgive when the film takes time out to explore the characters and add occasional doses of reality. There are even memorable scenes of nameless soldiers: a man hacks at a barricade, is hit with an arrow in the upper chest but hacks at the barricade a few more times before two more arrows take him down. In a few brief seconds, it’s a portrait of a common soldier fiercely dedicated to the fight against an invasion of his homelands.

At the same time, all the military generals and more central characters are the ones capable of leaping from a balcony and floating gently to the ground, and while it suits the epic nature of the film, I also wonder if it’s meant to be symbolic that the more privileged characters have enhanced abilities to match. It’s certainly a striking contrast to the many soldiers we see struck down, and though unintentionally done it may be one of the few things that detracts from the film, because our heroes are less likeable if they’re just a weaker set of aristocrats controlling the common man.

Of the many great moments in the film, there’s a scene of two characters talking until one of them releases a bird and the camera follows it for several minutes as it sweeps over the armies and ships on one side, across the bay and down over the opposing armies and ships before landing right in the enemy camp. And sure, it’s a mix of special effects and a long helicopter shot of some kind, but the result is still spectacular, and that kind of care has been taken from start to finish. There’s even a good score to be found here. John Woo has directed stylish and impressive films before, but I think this one will be seen as the crowning achievement of his career.

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