The two most powerful warriors are: patience and time

 A battle lost or won is easily described, understood, and appreciated, but the moral growth of a great nation requires reflection, as well as observation, to appreciate it
 Frederick Douglass

Red Cliff (2008 – 2009)
Historical, War
Written by
Directed by
Country of Origin
China, Hong Kong, Japan,  South Korea, Taiwan 
Running time
 288 minutes combined Part 1 & Part 2 

oh! … background

Red Cliff is based on the Battle of Red Cliffs otherwise known as the Battle of Chibi. It was a decisive battle fought at the end of the Han dynasty, about twelve years before the beginning of the Three Kingdoms period in Chinese history.

The battle was fought in the winter of AD 208/9 between the allied forces of the southern warlords (Liu Bei and Sun Quan) and a northern warlord (Cao Cao). Liu Bei and Sun Quan successfully fought back Cao Cao’s effort to conquer the land south of the Yangtze River and reunite the territory of the Eastern Han dynasty.

The victory at Red Cliffs ensured the survival of Liu Bei and Sun Quan, gave them control of the Yangtze, and provided a line of defence that would later become the creation of the two southern states – Shu Han and Eastern Wu. Because of the large numbers involved, the Battle of Red Cliffs was called the ‘largest naval battle in history’.

One of the four great classical Chinese novels, Romance of the Three Kingdoms, written by Luo Guanzhong (later substantially edited by Mao Zonggang), is the basis of the Red Cliff film because of its factual viewpoints on both the Ming and Qing dynasties, authentic historical recordings by various storytellers and copyists, and the cultural significance to Chinese history. The novel covers a time during which a number of complicated political battles, struggles and shifts in power took place and as a result occupied Chinese cultural imagination which still exists today in the form of comics, graphic novels and video games. The Romance of the Three Kingdoms, when translated to English, contains over 1100 pages of battles, shaky alliances, double-crosses, assassinations, and counter-coups. Many educated Chinese are familiar with this period of history, but most western audiences will be confused by the complicated story.

When the Chinese think about the period of The Three Kingdoms and the Battle of Red Cliffs, they’re not so much concerned about what happened, but about the mythology that evolved over the years following those events. It’s like how western audiences view the Trojan War in Western culture.

In the case of Chinese interpretation, mythology tends to prefer the Northern Chinese perspective, casting southern Chinese in a disparaging light. Director John Woo’s film follows the main narrative of the novel, but he admitted to trying to balance the perspectives by drawing more historical context from the historical Chronicle of the Three Kingdoms, too.

oh! … brief

Formidable and cunning Prime Minister Cao Cao has one desire and that is to rule the separate kingdoms throughout China. He manipulates a weak, young and obviously foolish Emperor Han and convinces him that the best approach to uniting China is to invade a strong kingdom ruled by Liu Bei. After Liu Bei’s kingdom is lost, two clans from the Southlands – the first clan is the Wu people ruled by Sun Quan, and the second, a clan led by Viceroy Zhou Yu join forces with Liu Bei. Refugees from Liu Bei’s kingdom flood across the Yangtse seeking safety and protection with Sun Quan’s clan. Military strategist Zhuge Liang aids the three clans as they prepare for war. Because Zhou Yu resides on a red cliff overlooking the Yangtse, most of the raging battle is fought at sea, an area Cao Cao lacks experience in. The combined armies pale in comparison to the army of 800,000 men Cao Cao commands, but their strategy and unique approach to defeating Cao Cao’s forces affords them the ultimate victory.

oh! … talks film

John Woo, with writer Kuo Cheng and his team, crafted an epic and amazingly spectacular war film mostly grounded in historical fact from texts, novels, and records. It’s a story of three men who band together to face, against all odds, their biggest foe. A typical underdog kind of story that will appeal to people who enjoyed films like Million Dollar Baby, Cinderella Man, and Braveheart.

John Woo began his career in the film industry making comedies in China before transitioning to action films and establishing his fame on a suite of Hong Kong mobster films like A Better Tomorrow (parts I & II), Bullet in the Head (my personal favourite), and Hardboiled. Following these successes, he worked in the Hollywood industry making, Face-Off, Windtalkers, Mission Impossible 2, and Paycheck among others. On his return to the Asian film industry, he then decided to dabble in something a little more challenging and why not?

Red Cliff is a surprising change of pace from an action-packed gangster film and a long way off from a thriller film. But John Woo didn’t miss his mark. Red Cliff is spectacular!

Kuo Cheng’s screenplay adaptation was astute and purposefully targeted a turning point in Chinese history that offered a chance to depict four powerful men in a battle of wills and offered audiences the chance to see just how advanced Chinese war strategies and plans were, compared to, western countries in the same era. He used simplistic and subtle dialogue for the most part which alongside the amazing visual narrative neatly tied the tale of the downfall of Cao Cao together.

In the beginning of the film, it is a little difficult to keep track of what’s going on and who is who because there are so many names and characters to remember. The opening scenes have extended bouts of fighting with explosive Kung-Fu antics and some serious kowtowing for some of the main characters. But that settles down once the audience becomes more familiar with the ins and outs of what is going on.

Cao Cao is Chancellor of the Eastern Han Dynasty in northern China and a famed cultured person who was an accomplished poet. He conquered the warlords of northern China supposedly to aid the Eastern Han Emperor who wants to see the reunification complete with the defeat of the southern lands. The screenplay highlights the fact that Cao Cao really has ulterior plans and that is to hijack the throne once he has crushed the southern lands entirely.

Liu Bei, a warlord loyal to the Han Dynasty has already been defeated several times in battle with Cao Cao but has not and will not succumb. Perhaps Cao Cao’s desire to crush the southern lands also has something to do with a personal vendetta? Who knows?

Zhuge Liang is Chief Advisor to Liu Bei and believed to have developed strategic military innovations like the landmine and the repeating crossbow (both examples are used in this production). But, Zhuge Liang also was known to have skills in astrology, qigong and Tao Te Ching which is a philosophical and religious Taoism.

The Grand Viceroy of the Eastern Wu King, Zhou Yu was an ingenious military strategist but much like Cao Cao he too was cultured and skilled in poetry and music. In the screenplay, Kuo Cheng includes Zhou Yu’s sister, Sun Shangxiang. Whether this was to pander to the feminist audience or not it was a brilliant inclusion. It was great to watch a strong, independent, female character sit on the war council and play an active role in fighting Cao Cao.

Sun Quan, the Eastern Wu King, governed his kingdom mostly without politics and ideology and was viewed as a mostly neutral governor considering he worked with both Cao Cao and the southern lands warlords to benefit the Eastern Wu.

The way the screenplay was written, Kuo Cheng, appears to use typical archetypes — Cao Cao evil villain, Liu Bei heroic fighter, Zhuge Liang protagonist and Zhou Yu as a brother in arms with Sun Quan playing the middle.

What the audience may not expect, but really should have with John Woo as the director, is the number of anti-war statements that are shared throughout the film, versions I and II alike. However, the anti-war sentiments are drowned out by the epic and extensive battle scenes, blood, guts, and gore. Of interest is the fact that at the end of the film, Zhuge Liang and Zhou Yu are depicted as being good friends, dedicated to proceeding through life in a peaceful manner – this is in fact entirely different from the original novel and a major depart from the true sentiments that Zhou Yu feels. He is jealous of Zhuge Liang and in the novel, Zhou Yu attempts to have Zhuge Liang assassinated more than a few times.

Basically speaking, the screenplay is constructed on four pivotal conflicts, (each a mini-story and progressively building toward the final battle) preceding the finale. The first conflict involves Cao Cao’s strike against Liu Bei. Kuo Cheng opens the film with a wonderful character episode involving General Zhou Yu’s rescue of Liu Bei’s infant son in the middle of battle. The visual narrative of this rescue was fabulous and strongly sealed in the audience mind that Zhou Yu was a man of valour and admiration. Behind the fast and furious battle, Liu Bei is trying to escort the civilians in his clan to safety and will not withdraw his army personnel until the civilians are safe. This is also captured well visually and sets Liu Bei up as a loyal, protectionist with a high set of moral values. Most of the fighting in this conflict is hand-to-hand and Kuo Cheng added acts of heroism and valour to draw the differences in Liu Bei compared to Cao Cao. It was nicely accomplished and the dialogue authentic.

The second conflict is Cao Cao’s first Southland attack and involves the joining of forces of the three clans under Liu Bei, Sun Quan, and Zhou Yu. Following the advice of Zhuge Liang, the three clans use a tortoise shell-shaped strategy’ as a surprise attack against Cao Cao’s forces. They manage to thwart Cao Cao’s attack, causing him to lose some of his 800,000 men while maintaining their stronghold on the Southland with a mere 30,000 men. With this initial success, Zhuge Liang is revealed to be an ingenious military strategist. The fighting in this conflict is also hand-to-hand and extremely brutal.

The third conflict arises when Cao Cao’s orders the dead bodies of troops who contracted typhoid fever be loaded onto rafts and floated across the Yangtse to the Southland side of the river. Unfortunately, Southland soldiers make the mistake of unloading the bodies and they also contract typhoid which then spreads rapidly through the Southland combined army. Of course, this has a disastrous effect on the numbers of troops in the Southland combined army, but it highlights just how ruthless Cao Cao is, but also how desperate he is and the lengths he will go to rule China.

The fourth conflict arises out of desperation of the Southland combined army which is running short of basic supplies – namely arrows. Zhuge Liang devises a plot to borrow arrows from the enemy (Cao Cao) and using powers of the occult to determine weather conditions, he prepares straw boats to float across the river to the enemy’s side. Of course, Cao Cao will not be outwitted so he rains down a barrage of arrows that stick in the straw boats and when they return to the Southland army and 100,00 arrows are recovered and can then be used against the very men who shot them. Of course, this devious plan furthers Zhuge Liang’s mastery of military strategy. No lives are lost by the Southland combined army.

The final battle occurs when Cao Cao decides to take advantage of a prevailing wind to move his fleet and set fire to the Southland docks which he hopes will then spread fire to the Red Cliff and burn or destroy the Southland army. More of Zhuge Liang’s dabbling in the occult allows him to predict a change in the wind Cao Cao is relying on and that it will, in fact, favour the Southland army instead. Zhou Yu’s wife and sister are involved in spying on Cao Cao’s troops and reporting back the details. Zhuge Liang involves other daring tactics and with Zhou Yu leading the Southland troops, they overthrow Cao Cao, capture him and then release him to return with his tail between his legs like the dog he was. And so, the underdogs win!

Because the nature of the film was war and most of the narrative involved strategy the dialogue, for the most part, is very straightforward and simple. Kuo Cheng did include some interesting twists that were not necessarily factual or based on historical context from records, but they made for entertainment, and ultimately that is what counts, even for war movie buffs.

Where Red Cliff really excelled, was under John Woo’s direction of the cinematography. Red Cliff is visually polished, from the wholly unreal wuxia wire-work action scenes that will appeal to Wire-Fu fans and video-gamers to the bloody battle scenes displaying in all its glory. Red Cliff is essentially John Woo’s observance of outlandish violence that will appeal to thrill-seekers. He perfectly captures in visual clarity the ebb and flow of battle, highlighting the tactical movements and unfurling climatic battle movements as if they weren’t complex and strategic pieces of a puzzle. But, he also strategically used an opening scene with a thousand horses, panoramic views of the mountains and rivers that helped to show the value of the kingdoms Cao Cao was pursuing, not to mention the aerial shots of battle strategies captured by using cranes overhead. Brilliant!

There was a little wizardry going on with the choreography of old-school wire work and of course special effects, not to mention the choreography of the formation of the “ba-gua” (8 stratagems). I was enthralled with the crane camera work involved that gave us amazing aerial shots of the tortoise formation and of course John Woo’s signature style slow motion shots. And he used CGI to create massive armies, hundreds of ships on the horizon, and battlefields, unlike anything you’ve seen before.

My favourite scene, however, is when a carrier pigeon is released and travels across the battlefields to the opposing camp. This was absolutely brilliant because it perfectly laid out the topography of the land as the camera flew with the pigeon – an almost physically impossible shot, but not so because John Woo’s cameramen and CGI trickery made it happen.

John Woo has vast knowledge in capturing action scenes and working on a grand scale, so it’s not surprising how impressively the battle scenes were choreographed and then visually captured. The set of the final battle was spectacular before the battle implodes and everything is destroyed. This film is all about the visual and the epic battle footage, perhaps that combined with the amazing action and strategy behind the defeat of Cao Cao is the reason so many war film buffs were taken into watching this production. John Woo’s camera captured the warring sides planning out their attacks, looking for subtle changes to things like the wind to give them the advantage, or exchanging philosophical beliefs over a cup of tea. He did this all by directing his cameramen to use exaggerated camera angles and techniques to heighten the cinematography.

By focusing on these smaller details, John Woo created one flaw in his production. He didn’t pay enough attention to developing the characters, not even in his visual narrative. This is perhaps the only ‘mistake’ and it doesn’t affect the film in a major way, but it does take away from the depth that could have been attained. And he certainly had enough time to explore his characters further with the overall 288 minutes of the two parts.

Nonetheless, Red Cliff is undoubtedly a fine example of the Chines film industry with its outstanding exhibition of martial arts, lyrical dialogue, dramatic sentiments, and elaborate choreography. Tim Yip’s set, production values and costume design paid special attention to the finer details and almost every single aspect was pure perfection. This attention to detail allowed the audience to become engrossed in the thrilling and somewhat emotional journey from film’s start to finish. The distinction between beauty and brutality was captured in the lens of the cameras and translated in John Woo’s clear, precise approach to delivering the film.

That precision was further bolstered by the musical score by Taro Iwashiro. If you’re a fan of soundtracks and the type of sweeping musical movements they typically encompass, then you won’t be disappointed with Taro Iwashiro’s contribution, it has some truly haunting and beautiful pieces.

The cast for this film included big names for the main characters and supporting actors and actresses and they all did an incredible job in their various roles. The acting for this production was exactly as it should be with the characters speaking in muted, dulcet tones while glissading across the sets. It was very epic-inducing for the audience.

Fengyi Zhang was cast as Cao Cao and delivered an outstanding performance with his commanding presence. He gave life to Cao Cao using a tone of voice, facial expression and body language to perfection. He is a seasoned actor so it is no surprise that his performance was exceptional and I really enjoyed watching him in this role.

You Yong plays Liu Bei and I couldn’t help but enjoy his performance, even though he is not the key character in this film. You Yong carried himself like a warlord and commanded his troops like a warlord. He physically was fitting for a character that has developed notoriety as a force to be reckoned with on the battlefield. You Yong did his character justice.

Takeshi Kaneshiro, one of my favoured Japanese/Taiwanese actors played Zhuge Liang and did such a fantastic job with the role I was completely mesmerized by his performance. Admittedly I’m a huge fan and have been for years, but he is actually an amazing actor and very skilled in delivery outstanding performances. He has unique facial expressions that mimic the emotions of his character and offer a deeper insight into their inner thoughts. He managed to completely convince me of Zhuge Liang’s humility, self-deprecation and loyalty to his master Liu Bei. He also delivers his character’s idiosyncrasies in an authentic manner. Nothing about this performance felt forced or ‘off’. It was a solid act!

Tony Leung as Zhou Yu was a wise decision on the part of John Woo after Chow Fat’s departure. I can’t actually imagine Tony Leung in any other role; Zhou Yu is a perfect match. And of course, Tony Leung brings soulfulness to his character that adds emotional depth. I enjoy the interaction and new alliance that develops between Zhou Yu and Zhuge Liang and almost looks like harmony, even though in the historical past they were not as cordial to each other. Tony Leung managed to balance his character’s intelligence and physical muscle with a compassionate heart. Of course, because of Tony Leung’s natural screen presence, developed and admired over the years, it’s not a stretch to believe that in this film he gives his most solid and memorable performance of his career. He also managed to reunite with both Chang Chen and Takeshi Kaneshiro. This helped John Woo as the three men have already established a credible chemistry and worked well together. Overall Tony Leung’s performance was spectacular.

Chang Chen played Sun Quan, who when compared to the other characters in the production, comes off a little wimpy. But that is not because of Chang Chen’s acting skills, it is the way the character has been written into the screenplay. Chang Chen does a good job with his character, perhaps not as strong as some of the other performances, but it was a strong performance all the same.

Zhao Wei as Princess Sun Shangxiang was just what this production needed. I was surprised to find this film had not one but two female leads with strong performances. Zhao Wei brought her Sun Shangxiang to life with her typical light acting method. She really delivered a character that perhaps was stretched by John Woo to be a bigger part of something that she ordinarily would have been. I like Zhao Wei and I enjoy her acting style. In this role, she delivered a fine performance for a somewhat ridiculous stunt. She was excellent as usual.

Hu Jun who plays Zhao Yun, China’s Sir Galahad did a great job. I must be honest and say that I wasn’t paying his character too much attention, but I certainly wouldn’t say that his performance wasn’t as strong as other leads, I just didn’t notice him as much and it certainly wasn’t because he was weak.

Lin Chi-ling brought the production its feminine beauty. She is absolutely stunning and for that alone she elevated a rather dark, masculine piece of work. Lin Chi-ling was the antithesis to Princess Sun Shangxiang. Lin Chi-ling interpreted her character well and delivered a beautifully soft-spoken, subservient lady of status. It was a perfect performance for a perfect character.

oh! … sidekicks

Red Cliff featured thousands of extras and I’d like to give those extras a quick shout out. Without all those extra bodies this film would have missed its chance to perfectly display the incomprehensible numbers of men who willingly followed their masters into war. Just let that sink in for a minute.

The three massive battle set pieces easily account for more than an hour of the film’s running time. I would imagine the easiest part of the movie for Woo to direct must be the quiet, contemplative moments that explore the film’s characters and their motivations, of which there are many.

And then I’d also like to give a quick mention to Shido Nakamura who played Gan Xing – great performance. Also, a special mention to Hou Yong, who played Lu Su — a strong supporting performance. And finally, a shout out to Tong Dawei who played Sun Shucai and gave a memorable performance.

Naturally, there are other supporting actors and actresses that helped in the success of the film, far too many to mention.

oh! … that’s a wrap

This film is 288 minutes of grand action and is a classic masterpiece of artistic beauty carefully and meticulously crafted by a level and class of craftsmanship that John Woo has finessed over the years of his career. John Woo balanced the multiple characters, main and supporting, the lengthy historical facts and capturing of the visual narrative with dexterity and insight, which made for an exceptionally entertaining body of work.

I highly recommend this film (comprised of two parts) because it perfectly depicted the valour, courage and acts of heroism of the characters involved in the Battle of Red Cliff, not to mention the comradery and brotherhood of men joined in arms to fight the greater evil. You will not be disappointed with this film, it offers more than a little of everything and so appeals to a wider audience.

Due to its significant length, it is not likely that I will watch this combined production again, however, I am adding it to my collection as it is an epic masterpiece.

oh! … tidbits

With a US $80 million dollar price tag, Red Cliff is the largest film that’s ever been created in China. It marked the return of John Woo to his Asian filmmaking roots following a stint in Hollywood.

Red Cliff was released in China and Asia as a two-part production with a combined total of 288 minutes. The first part premiered in Beijing on July 2, 2008 (Red Cliff I) and the second (Red Cliff II) in China on January 7, 2009.

Outside Asia, a cut-down single 148-minute version was released in 2009 to appeal to Hollywood audiences.

The first part of the film grossed US$124 million in Asia and broke the box office record previously held by Titanic in mainland China.

Descriptions of the battle differ widely, and the location of the battle is fiercely debated. The majority of academic conjectures place it on the south bank of the Yangtze River, southwest of present-day Wuhan and northeast of Baqiu (present-day Yueyang, Hunan).

The shooting was held at a film studio in Beijing, as well as in Hebei province, where naval warfare was staged at two working reservoirs.

Red Cliff received a lot of attention for:

It’s musical-chair casting – Chow Yun-Fat and Tony Leung Chiu-Wai quit the production in the early stages. Takeshi Kaneshiro filled the void left by Tony Leung Chiu-Wai who later returned to replace Chow Yun-Fat’s role.

The filmmakers received help from the Chinese Army who lent them approximately 1500 soldiers to play extras and build roads.

During post-production, a 23-year-old stuntman was killed when a fire broke out after a small boat rammed into a larger warship while filming miniatures.

Ken Watanabe was originally selected for the role of Cao Cao. According to a report, some Chinese fans voiced objections over the choice as they felt that it was inappropriate for a Japanese actor to portray an important Chinese historical figure.

oh! … soundtrack

oh! … gallery

oh! … trailers

oh! … nooz

John Woo unbound: The Red Cliff Interviews

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