Red Cliff

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Red Cliff

(Chinese Epic)
 
 
Structured as a spectacular war epic, "Red Cliff" centers on the legendary tale of the Battle of Red Cliff, which took place in China in 208 A.D.   Shot on an estimated budget of $80 million, it's the most expensive Asian-financed film to date.  Among other things, the lush, beautifully shot film reunites Woo with Tony Leung for the first time since "Hard Boiled," the 1992 cult film.
 
Marking the return of John Woo to China, after a whole decade of making big budget actioners in Hollywood, "Red Cliff" finds the director in top form—except the short, truncated movie I saw is not the movie that was released in China and other countries.
 
John Woo created two versions of the film:  a two part, five-hour version for Asian audiences and a single two-and–a half-hour version for other territories.  When the first part was released in Asia in July 2008, it grossed over $124 million, breaking the box office record previously held by James Cameron's "Titanic" in Mainland China. I hope that the DVD release of "Red Cliff" will contain the entire five-hour film.
 
Some context is in order: The subject of "Red Cliff" was first depicted in the classic Chinese novel "Romance of the Three Kingdoms." Though written over 700 years ago, the novel is still widely read in Asia and has spawned numerous videogames and comic books. 
 
Set near the end of the Han Dynasty in 208 A.D, "Red Cliff"opens with the shrewd, power-driven Prime Minister-turned-General Cao Cao (Zhang Fengyi) seeking permission from the impressionable Han dynasty Emperor to organize a southward-bound mission designed to defeat two troublesome warlords that stand in his way, Liu Bei (You Yong) and Sun Quan (Chang Chen).   Cao Cao claims that his intention is to unify all of China for the good of the Han Empire, but his motivations are more self-serving, and he leads his army of nearly one million soldiers off to war. Their first destination is the newly established Xu Kingdom, ruled by the benevolent leader Liu Bei.  
 
As the expedition gets under way, Cao Cao's troops rain destruction on Liu Bei's army, forcing the latter to retreat. Liu Bei's military strategist Zhuge Liang (Takeshi Kaneshiro) knows that their only hope for survival is to form an alliance with rival warlord Sun Quan, and reaches out to Sun Quan’s trusted advisor, war hero Zhou Yu (Tony Leung). Vastly outnumbered by Cao Cao’s fast approaching, brutal army, the rebel warlords band together to mount a heroic campaign unrivalled in Chinese history.
 
Chinese epics are rarely depicted with the scale and technique that is found in Hollywood blockbusters. "Red Cliff" concerns the heroes of the Three Kingdoms outside of the martial arts genre. But for Woo, the most attractive aspects are not the supernatural characters idealized by the novel, but the true heroism of the human characters
 
Woo's explicit goal was to make the equivalent of a Hollywood blockbuster in Chinese that would appeal to non-Asian audiences as well. While his first aim is accomplished, the second, of appealing to foreign audience, is in doubt, as the short version lacks crucial details about the central persona and historical events. The movies is subtitled, but the screen is so rich in conveying dense visual information that it's almost impossible to watch the spectacle and read (and absorb) the subtitles at the same time. Hence, below I provide a more detailed synopsis of the action.
 
Detailed Plot
 
Upon arriving at the Xu Kingdom, Cao Cao’s forces easily crush Liu Bei’s vastly outnumbered army, sending Liu Bei and his people on a desperate flight from Xin Ye City. The Xu citizens flee under the protection of Liu Bei’s troops and his two top generals, Guan Yu (Ba Sen Zha Bu) and Zhang Fei (Zang Jingsheng), risk their lives to save the fleeing peasants. Meanwhile, a lone Liu general, Zhao Yun (Hu Jun), fights his way through a battalion of Cao troops while carrying Liu Bei’s infant son in his armor. 
 
After a heroic stand against Cao Cao, Guan Yu, Zhang Fei and their troops make their escape. With the Yangtze River the only natural defense against the mighty Cao army, the Liu generals know it is only a matter of time before Cao Cao’s forces catch up with them and slaughter everyone. They have no other choice but to send a representative, ZhugeLiang (Takeshi Kaneshiro), to the Kingdom of East Wu to ask to form an alliance.
 
ZhugeLiang arrives at the wealthy Kingdom of East Wu where his request is at first met with resistance from the 26-year-old leader, Sun Quan (Chang Chen) and his council. Sun Quan’s advisor, Lu Su (Hou Yong), informs Zhuge Liangthat if he wants to sway Sun Quan, he must first convince the Viceroy, Zhou Yu (Tony Leung). Zhuge Liang ventures to the Wu training camp at Red Cliff, where Zhou Yu is instructing his elite “Dare-to-Die” assault troops, with the help of General Gan Xing (Shidou Nakamura). That night Zhou Yu and Zhuge Liangplay classical Chinese instruments together and discuss the prospects of war. Zhuge Liangalso meets Zhou Yu’s wife – known for being the most beautiful woman in all of China, Xiao Qiao (Chiling Lin)–whose father was actually very close with Cao Cao many years ago. 
 
After bonding, Zhou Yu and Zhuge Liang return to Sun Quan and convince him that it is in his kingdom’s best interest to form an alliance with Liu Bei. Cao Cao, by this time, has asked for Sun Quan’s formal surrender, a request which Sun Quan boldly declines.
 
Cao Cao, eager to fight, sends one of his generals, Xia Hou Yuan (Hu Xiao Guang), to launch an attack against the allies on horseback. Zhou Yu and Zhuge Liang have already predicted his attack and are ready. Xia Hou is first attacked by Sun Quan’s tomboyish sister, Sun Shangxiang (Zhao Wei), and in a rage, follows her and her archers right into a trap. The allies use a complicated system of battle formations and inflict incredible damage on Xia Hou’s men. By battle’s end, Xia Hou, having had his life spared by Zhou Yu, flees alone in shame after his troops all surrender to Zhou Yu, who has been injured during an act of true heroism, in which he saved the life of Zhao Yun. 
 
The East Wu forces then set up camp on the south bank of the Yangtze River by a precipitous area known as “Red Cliff.” Directly across the river on the north bank, Cao Cao erects an imposing fortress in the center of his camp at Crow Forest, as well as a naval stockade comprised of 2,000 ships. While his soldiers prepare for the upcoming battles, Cao Cao insists that his men play “cuju,” an ancient form of soccer. Sun Quan’s sister, Sun Shangxiang (Zhao Wei), a brave warrior in her own right, disguises herself as a male Cao soldier and acts as a spy.
 
Cao Cao's troops, unaccustomed to the southern environment – begin falling ill to a rampant plague, so he sends the infected bodies of his dead soldiers across the river to infect the allied forces. Though ZhugeLiang reacts quickly, many still fall victim to the plague and the allied forces are heavily demoralized. Liu Bei rides off with Guan Yu, Zhang Fei and Zhao Yun, seemingly deserting the alliance. 
 
In need of supplies, Zhuge Liang hatches an intricate plan to weaken the Cao army. They stage a fake night assault on Cao’s naval stockade, which results in Cao’s admirals ordering their troops to fire nearly 100,000 arrows at empty enemy ships. By morning, it appears as though Cao’s two top admirals have intentionally given the arrows to the enemy as a gift. In spite of this, Cao still plans to launch an attack and gives an inspiring speech to restore the morale of his army.
 
Back at Red Cliff, the East Wu generals devise a plan to attack Cao’s naval stockade with fire. This strategy is strong in theory since Cao’s ships are all chained together; however, with the wind currently blowing from the north, the fire would only blow back onto the East Wu ships. Sun Shangxiang returns with a complete map of the Cao camp, which the allies use to plan their attack.
 
Xiao Qiao secretly goes to Cao Cao to try to convince him to halt his invasion – or at least stall him a while. Cao Cao, who has been fond of Xiao Qiao since she was a child, is instantly smitten by Xiao Qiao’s beauty. (It had even been rumored that Cao Cao’s motivation for going to war was really an effort to win Xiao Qiao’s heart.)
 
Zhuge Liang returns to Zhou Yu and informs him that the direction of the wind will change, thus permitting them to move forward with his plan of attack. Finally, the wind changes directions and the East Wu army attacks. Several East Wu ships are ignited and sent crashing into Cao Cao’s naval stockade. Soon the entire Cao fleet is set ablaze. Meanwhile, the Wu army invades Cao’s camp on land. 
 
The attack takes Cao Cao and his army completely off guard. But Cao Cao’s powerful cavalry turns the tables and pushes the invading army back to the river. Then, to everyone’s surprise, Liu Bei and his army show up and help put Cao Cao’s troops back on the defensive. Now the united army begins its attack on Cao Cao’s fortress. Zhou Yu, with the help of Zhao Yun and Sun Quan, eventually makes his way into the fortress and rescues Xiao Qiao as it goes up flames. The massive battle ends in a resounding victory for East Wu and Liu Bei’s Kingdom of Xu over Prime Minister Cao Cao, who is allowed to return to his Emperor in defeat.