John Woo's extravagant historical epic, Red Cliff | Film Review | Indy Week
Pin It

John Woo's extravagant historical epic, Red Cliff 

click to enlarge Zhang Fengyi as Prime Minster Cao Cao in "Red Cliff" - PHOTO COURTESY OF MAGNET RELEASING

Red Cliff opens Friday in select theaters

For the first half hour or so, I resisted John Woo's Red Cliff, his epic account of a series of battles that took place in China in the year 208. It was the time of the Three Kingdoms—the Wei, Shu and Wu—before the Eastern Han dynasty was established. Already, we're on unfamiliar turf: Most Americans' grasp of history that old begins and ends with the establishment of Christianity.

But that wasn't the problem with the early scenes of Red Cliff. Instead, it was the sense of "here we go again" as a stentorian English-language narrator gives us a thumbnail backstory about civil wars, the weak emperor so-and-so and the double-dealing such-and-such, all while Woo's camera pans across a bewildering array of elaborately costumed generals, viceroys, emperors and courtiers..

Red Cliff represents not only Woo's first Chinese film (meaning mainland and Mandarin-speaking), but also his first full-blown foray into historical epics. It turns out to be a mode of storytelling that suits him perfectly. Red Cliff exists in a five-hour version that was a massive hit in China; viewers in stateside theaters will have to settle for a two-and-a-half-hour version (although the forthcoming DVD is said to contain the whole thing).

The expository scenes, including an early battle to establish the dastardly intentions of Prime Minister Cao Cao (the great Zhang Fengyi, giving the most nuanced, sensitive reading of an Asian bad guy in memory), had me preparing to consign the film to the dustbin of over-decorated, undermotivated martial arts epics. But then I realized two things: First, Red Cliff isn't a martial arts film—even if many of the battle feats require the skills of highly trained stuntmen. Rather, it's a quote-unquote realistic Hollywood-style historical epic in the mold of Braveheart or Troy.

Second, I recalled that in the early 1990s, at the peak of John Woo's hipness as a Hong Kong-based maker of such pulp classics as A Better Tomorrow, The Killer, Hard Boiled and Bullet in the Head, I wondered if his predilection for elaborately and operatically choreographed violence, unexamined homoeroticism and slow-motion cutaways to flying birds and other sentimental religious metaphors would wear thin, particularly in his preferred modern settings. Based on his subsequent Hollywood career that was characterized by such weak sisters as Paycheck, Broken Arrow and even Face/Off, I think the answer is yes.

But in a sweeping tale set two millennia ago, we can forgive the two-dimensionality of many of the characters. More important, Woo's florid, indulgent slo-mo montages, far from being intrusive and cheesy, are the emotional and sensual linchpins of Red Cliff, providing a respite from the strategizing, the rallying of troops and the battling. The cross-cutting action sequences themselves owe just as much to such past masters as Griffith, Ford and Kurosawa as they do to the generation of 300 and Gladiator.

I don't know how accurate the film is in its depiction of military technology, but it contains enough discussion of weapons and tactics to satisfy the History Channel watcher in all of us. We learn about the "goose formation" and the "tortoise formation," and we also learn how an army that is short on arrows might replenish its supply while denying the enemy theirs. Then there is the crucial role of wind in planning an assault that uses fire as a weapon: When your script says "wind" to John Woo, you might as well throw "meat" to a ravenous dog. His camera—and editing—goes nuts on images of wind, fire and water, not to mention clouds, rolling fog, the moon, flying paper lanterns and brewing tea.

One of the most memorable of Woo's ecstatic montages involves a point-of-view tracking shot of a homing pigeon flying from the good guys' redoubt in the titular Red Cliff to the enemy camp. With the bird in flight, the enemy generals watch a highly skillful, ancient version of soccer, a brave female spy makes observations and the leader of the good guys, Zhou Yu (Tony Leung), practices his swordplay while his wife Xiao Qiao (Chiling Lin), who functions in this story much as Helen did in the tale of Troy (although in China she's evidently called "the face that sank 2,000 ships"), whispers phrases from The Art of War to him. If Woo keeps making movies as enthralling and pleasurable as this one, he should write a book called The Art of Cinema.

Comments

Subscribe to this thread:

Add a comment

INDY Week publishes all kinds of comments, but we don't publish everything.

  • Comments that are not contributing to the conversation will be removed.
  • Comments that include ad hominem attacks will also be removed.
  • Please do not copy and paste the full text of a press release.

Permitted HTML:
  • To create paragraphs in your comment, type <p> at the start of a paragraph and </p> at the end of each paragraph.
  • To create bold text, type <b>bolded text</b> (please note the closing tag, </b>).
  • To create italicized text, type <i>italicized text</i> (please note the closing tag, </i>).
  • Proper web addresses will automatically become links.

Latest in Film Review



Twitter Activity

Comments

I also loved this movie when it came out. Having just recently rewatched it, I'm surprised by how many details …

by Jase Wells on A Forgotten The Handmaid’s Tale Movie Filmed in Durham Is the Missing Link Between Classic Novel and Hulu Hit (Film Review)

What a great story, thanks Allison! I remember seeing this movie in high school and loving it. I never made …

by Glenn McDonald on A Forgotten The Handmaid’s Tale Movie Filmed in Durham Is the Missing Link Between Classic Novel and Hulu Hit (Film Review)

Most Recent Comments

I also loved this movie when it came out. Having just recently rewatched it, I'm surprised by how many details …

by Jase Wells on A Forgotten The Handmaid’s Tale Movie Filmed in Durham Is the Missing Link Between Classic Novel and Hulu Hit (Film Review)

What a great story, thanks Allison! I remember seeing this movie in high school and loving it. I never made …

by Glenn McDonald on A Forgotten The Handmaid’s Tale Movie Filmed in Durham Is the Missing Link Between Classic Novel and Hulu Hit (Film Review)

Just saw Pitch Perfect 3 trailer. Looks like its going to be another year of fun ride. Incredibly excited to …

by Andrew190 on Dueling college a cappella groups in Pitch Perfect (Film Review)

We'd be hard pressed to find a free local weekly with film reviews this poetic. Your writers translate complex ideas …

by Aims Arches on Isabelle Huppert Unforgettably Avenges Herself in Elle (Film Review)

Ever since the surprise success of the Fox TV show Glee audiences have been exposed to the world of choirs, …

by philip190 on Dueling college a cappella groups in Pitch Perfect (Film Review)

© 2017 Indy Week • 320 E. Chapel Hill St., Suite 200, Durham, NC 27701 • phone 919-286-1972 • fax 919-286-4274
RSS Feeds | Powered by Foundation