When you hear the term “John Woo movie,” several images come to mind. The first and foremost, of course, is a slow-motion shot of white doves flying dramatically across the screen. It is the director’s most well known trademark, a contrast between a sublime symbol of peace and the violence that surrounds it. Other things that come to mind are stylish gunplay, perhaps Castor Troy coolly retrieving two golden guns from the back of his belt and fire them sequentially while diving sideways.
And many, many explosions. Michael Bay gets all the cheers and jeers for his artistic focus on pyrotechnics. Woo, though, is right up there. He and Bay are kindred spirits, and it’s hard at times to figure which one goes over the top. (For the record… it’s Woo.) One of the few things I remember about Mission Impossible 2 — beyond the slow-motion shots of white doves and the stylish gunplay — is the opening scene where Tom Cruise flings his sunglasses toward the viewer. And, of course, the sunglasses explode. Why would they do otherwise in a John Woo movie?
So when you hear that John Woo is returning to making Chinese language movies after an extended sojourn in Hollywood, and his first project is a historical epic, it’s slightly incongruous. Isn’t this more Zhang Yimou’s territory? How’s he going to shoe-horn the white doves, the explosions, and the gunplay? Will it even look like a John Woo movie?
As it turns out, he delivers on two of the three… and there are ways to work around the third one.
In China, Red Cliff was released in two parts. The first movie has a 142 minute run time. The second, 142 minutes. The international release, which is the one that I watched, was trimmed to a lean 148 minutes. While still two-and-a-half hours long, this means that 50% of the movie was trimmed from its original runtime.
This is something I didn’t know until I started writing this review. I was casually surfing IMDB while watching the movie and caught the existence of something called Red Cliff II, assuming that this was the continuing adventures. More battles! More royal intrigue! Well… as it turns out I did see Red Cliff I and II, or at least parts of it. The trimmed version actually does work as a cohesive movie, and if you didn’t know of the cuts, it wouldn’t immediately jump out.
Wikipedia tells met that there was a ten minute scrolling prologue to the movie going through Chinese history and how things to to where they were. Its elimination is one of the movie’s many cuts to get the runtime down… and frankly can see why this would try the patience of Western audiences. The movie itself was based a popular Chinese historical account, The Romance of the Three Kingdoms. It was reasoned that since several of these characters had become folkloric heroes, they could not cut their stories short in the Chinese version. That would be like doing a Lord of the Rings movie, but limit Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli to short cameos!
American audiences, on the other hand, were unfamiliar with the characters and wouldn’t fuss so much. This is almost the reverse of the Hollywood practice where segments are added to films to specifically reach out to the Chinese market. (See: Iron Man 3.) Make Americans happy by showing them less! (Which, honestly, didn’t work. The movie only made little more than $600K in the US.)
We open the movie with prime minister Cao Cao (Zhang Fengyi). His army has waged a battle in the north, and the Han emperor has been installed as his puppet. He approaches the emperor and pressures him to authorize a war against two southern warlords — Liu Bei (played by You Yong) of the Shu and Sun Quan (played by Shang Chen) of the Wu. (And goddamn you autocorrect. I have had to rewrite that previous entry several times now. If I misspell anything in this review, I am totally blaming it on, uh, the death of net neutrality.)
The movie then goes straight in the middle of the Battle of Changban. Here’s where I think another cut happened, as Wikipedia tells me that “Cao Cao’s mighty army swiftly conquers Jing Province.” We don’t see this. instead, the movie immediately cuts to Liu Bei’s retreat. An English speaking narrator, who substitutes for the original scrolling text, fills us in on the history as captions flash on the screen identifying the characters.
This is where I get the sense that several character storylines were completely eliminated. Liu Bei’s followers are a colorful and interesting bunch, and they all are treated to fantastic battle hardy intros. However, we barely see them afterwards. They’ve been relegated to side chararacters.
Later in the movie, we’re introduced to Sun Quan’s sister, the princess Sun Shangxiang (played by Zhao Wei). She apparently has a lot more to do in the original release. She acts as a spy, somehow infiltrating Cao Cao’s forces and retrieving crucial battle formations for the combined armies of the Shu and the Wu. (This is accomplished using that beloved John Woo staple: a white dove with a message strapped on its leg.) My wife, incidentally, was glad to hear that she apparently got more backstory, because she was a little confused as to how she managed to wander Cao Cao’s camp so freely and undetected.
The movie, instead, focuses on the relationship between Sun Quan’s viceroy Zhou Yu (played by Tony Leung) and Liu Bei’s strategist Zhuge Liang (Takeshi Kaneshiro, who seems to show up in every single historical Chinese movie that I have ever watched). Zhuge sets himself apart by being one of the few non-combatants, preferring to watch the battles from the distance and fanning himself with a clipped bird’s wing. Kaneshiro plays him very coolly with thoughtful expressions where you can almost see the gears turning in his brain. Zhou, on the other hand, is both soulful and a man of action. While he will stand beside Zhuge to watch the battle from afar, he will throw himself into the fray if needs be.
Cao Cao is a dangerous villain, commanding a force of 800,000. He is sailing a massive navy to the fortified city of Red Cliff, where the combined Wu and Shu only have an army of 50,000. There is no room for error. At one point, Zhou and Zhuge present radical strategies, and they promise that if their plans fail they will offer themselves up for execution as demanded by military protocol. They can’t just rush into battle against this far superior army. They have to play things smarter.
There’s also another complication, reminiscent of Helen of Troy: Cao Cao is in love with Zhou Yu’s wife (played Lin Chi-Ling). It’s implied that no amount of negotiations or promise of neutrality would have stopped him from invading. Also implied: love is going to be the weakness that undoes the normally competent warrior. I have no idea how much of this is based in actually history and how much of this is John Woo wanting to have a romantic hook, a la Titanic. (Notably, Woo’s 2014 movie, The Crossing, has sometimes been described at the “Chinese Titanic“.)
Even so, Cao Cao’s troops are not treated as disposable enemy cannon fodder. These northern troops are shown as not being fully equipped for the reality of fighting in the southern territories. They’re used to fighting on land, and naval warfare is strange and new to them. We also get to see what’s going on in their camp. They’re keeping their spirits high by playing soccer. They’re also ill-equipped for typhoid, and are soon weakened by the disease. The Imperial fighting men are as much a victim of Cao Cao’s ruthless ambitions are the Wu and Shu armies are.
There’s some military strategies, both on land and on sea, involved in the battles. The real battle, after all, involved a lot of clever sneak attacks that managed to eat away at Cao Cao’s 800,000 man military. (Note: historians place the number closer to 240,000, and credit the inflated figure to Cao Cao trying to make his force look far more impressive than it really was.). Though, in the end, the battles cumulate with the superstar warriors taking on a horde of opponents single-handedly. It looks a lot like Dynasty Warriors… which, incidentally, is also based on Romance of the Three Kingdoms. Were the real battles like this, with some guy swinging a big stick or throwing haymakers with his fists? While cinematic, I imagine it’s not very practical.
Massive props to the creativity of the battles, though. They’re all different, and never boring. This isn’t just one wave of humanity crashing against another. In an early instance, a massive Wei land army pursues a tiny cavalry unit led by the princess Sun Shangxiang. They chase Sun over a dry plain. The horses are dragging a bundle of sticks behind them, which kicks up red dust cloud that obscures the vision of the pursuers. Unwittingly, they are led to the combined forces of the Wu and Shu, who have formed their ranks up like a maze by forming up their shields like a wall. The larger army is split up and corralled like cattle, breaking them up into more manageable units that the elite forces of the Wu and Shu can finish off.
Being John Woo has it perks, one of which is the ability to attract a huge budget. When Red Cliff was released, it was the second most expensive non-English film of all time. It is still in the top eight. That money gets you plenty of practical effects, amazing sets, decent CGI, and a massive cast (many of whom are from the Chinese army).
And, of course, explosions! What separates John Woo from the likes of Zhang Yimou are his action movie bonafides. Sure, this movie may be set in AD 208. That doesn’t mean you can’t have giant fireballs everywhere! The Chinese invented gunpowder, after all! Never mind that gunpowder was not invented until the 9th Century. Not when you can make Classical Chinese warfare look like a scene straight out of Rambo!
Woo has never claimed this movie to be accurate after all. “Actually only 50% is based on historical facts,” he said in an interview with David Stratton. I can dig it. In real life, we probably didn’t have massive naval warships exploding into flames as they crashed into each other, or enemy combatants dramatically pointing swords at each other necks in a standoff. (Remember how I told you Woo got around the stylish gunplay restriction? Here’s how he does it, but with swords.) It’s brash, dramatic, and propulsive in that crazy style that only John Woo can do.
I could’ve just have told you that Red Cliff was “John Woo does a Chinese historical war movie,” and that movie that played out in your mind is basically what you got. Crowd-pleasing action sequences, moments of music-video style drama, soulful manly friendships a la The Killer, and some damn epic cinematography.
Red Cliff is currently available for streaming on Tubi.
NEXT: Captain America boards the train that would not stop with Snowpiercer.