Red Cliff

Red Cliff

****1/2

Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

In what is known as the Three Kingdoms period of China's history, the northern part of the country was torn by a brutal civil war. Upon eventually ending it, powerful prime minister Cao Cao, whose emperor is little more than a puppet, set his sights on the south. There to resist him were two warlords - aging and battle-worn Liu Bei and the younger, more peacefully inclined Zhou Yu. Alone, neither stood a chance. It took a wily diplomat to unite them and attempt to reshape the fate of the empire.

If you are a fan of historical epics, this is one of the best. It's also a superb war film, effortlessly blending strategic planning, tactical manouvres, dramatic action sequences and glimpses of what it all looks like to the people on the ground. John Woo has stuck quite closely to the historical events but still manages to pack in enough surprises to provide some thrills for those who know them well. Unfortunately an hour of footage has been cut out for the UK release, which makes parts of the story confusing for newcomers. Nevertheless, there's plenty to enjoy.

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What really gives this film an edge over similar epics is its beautifully drawn characters. These are much more than ciphers for the plot or historical archetypes, and they have been approached with sympathy and balance so that we get a real insight into motives on all sides. Tony Leung makes an intriguing Zhou Yu, a man seeking balance in his own life but forced to make difficult decisions that threaten everything he loves. His intellectual depth enables him to engage directly with the innovative strategies of the diplomat, who is convincingly played by Takeshi Kaneshiro. Meanwhile, Fengyi Zhang creates a complex Cao Cao, a man whose once noble goals have led him astray, and whose one weakness is his infatuation with Zhou Yu's beautiful wife Xiao Qiao (newcomer Chiling Lin).

Behind the fascinating story of battlefield action and brilliant tactics, much of this film adheres to the ancient Chinese principle of the necessary balance between yin and yang. As Cao Cao is consumed by his own pride and military ambition, and Zhou Yu tries to counter him without falling into the same trap, Xiao Qiao wields a wholly different influence and a not inconsiderable power, even if she spends most of her time writing, tending the sick and making tea. This is not presented as the only option for a woman - Zhou Yu's sister Sun Shangxiang (Wei Zhao) wants to be a soldier, and acquits herself well, though she learns a soldier's lessons in the process - but it is a valued role and it serves as a vital counterpoint to the destruction going on around her.

The battle scenes in this film are spectacular, engaging both the intellect and the gut. The naval battles, in particular, feature technology rarely seen on film. It's humbling to consider that all this took place nearly 2000 years ago, with the Chinese soldiers using gunpowder to spectacular effect - and also having almost 100% literacy - when European culture was primitive. Despite the period, both the action and the characters here seem thoroughly modern and yet not anachronistic. This fits well with Woo's dynamic style. Though he shows a new-found flair for subtle drama, his genius for action is as strong as ever. He brings this slice of history thundering into the present, and you'd be a fool to miss it.

Reviewed on: 05 Jun 2009
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The story of an ancient Chinese battle in which a ragtag southern alliance tried to hold out against a powerful warlord from the north.
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Director: John Woo

Writer: John Woo, Khan Chan

Starring: Tony Leung Chiu Wai, Takeshi Kaneshiro, Fengyi Zhang, Chen Chang, Wei Zhao, Jun Hu, Chiling Lin, Shido Nakamura, Yong You, Ba Sen Zha Bu

Year: 2008

Runtime: 148 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: China

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