My Ten Cents On: Red Cliff Parts 1 and 2

After stunning the Western world with his awesome flicks Broken Arrow and Face/Off, John Woo poised himself to become one of the new contenders in Hollywood’s action genre. These two successes led to two huge fail moments in Hollywood: 1) Nicholas Cage thinking that he’d be a great stone-faced action star, and John Woo’s Hollywood career afterward. I won’t talk about Nick Cage in this post, but I will say that THESE are the acting “skills” that he is awesome at and that he should ALWAYS do.

But back to John Woo, he fell into the Hollywood system and in shifting from the way films are made in Hong Kong and America, which from what I know are vastly different especially in the way they treat production of action movies, he lost something. There was a profound lack of depth in his next movies, Mission Impossible: 2, being pretty much all overblown style and no substance, Windtalkers, which I’d like to call Saving Private Ryan: Ultra Light, and Paycheck, or “the movie that killed Ben Affleck’s career after it was put in a coma by Gigli“. These movies, the last one especially, and a few lesser productions, had John Woo go back to Hong Kong, which could actually be a great thing.

His story actually mirror’s a bit of Jackie Chan’s own. If you didn’t know, Rush Hour wasn’t the first Hollywood movie of Jackie Chan’s. Back in the early 80’s, Jackie Chan was brought over to the US to star in a couple of movies called Cannonball Run and Cannonball Run 2, starring Burt Reynolds, Sammy Davis Jr. and Dean Martin (to name a few). This was partially done because Hollywood executives were trying to fill the hole left by Bruce Lee after his untimely death. Anyway, it suffices to say that Jackie Chan wasn’t given the freedom to use his own abilities properly and summarily failed in the eyes of the early 80’s Western audience. What he got from it though, is that he saw old tapes of Harold Lloyd and Buster Keaton, silent comedians who formed the Holy Trinity of Silent Comedy along side Charlie Chaplin, and the incredible stunts they did and how they used action for comedic purposes. He went back to Hong Kong, armed with this knowledge, and made some of the best action movies to ever come out of China, if not the world. Check this little segment from Buster Keaton’s: The General.

John Woo’s own adventure is a bit close to this. Any true John Woo fan would tell you that his movies in Hong Kong were his high point, much like Jackie Chan in the 80’s. Hardboiled, Once A Thief and The Killer are all considered as modern action classics. But when he came back from Hollywood he came back with their style of making huge productions, and their expertise in CGI for action flicks, this merged with the profound nature, substance and art of his action films in Hong Kong proved to be an interesting combination.

And the product of that was Red Cliff. Red Cliff is a martial arts epic pair of films based around one of the more memorable battles in the highly-fictionalized historical text: The Romance of the Three Kingdoms. For those of you who have played any video game in the Dynasty Warriors series, this is also known as the Battle of Chi Bi. For those of you unfamiliar with the battle, there was a point in Chinese history when the country was divided into several smaller lordships and fiefdoms, ruled by their own lords. One man, Cao Cao (pronounce “Tsao Tsao”, not “Cow Cow” because then no one would take him seriously), rises up and begins to take over the land in the name of the emperor, whom Cao Cao has manipulative control over. After crushing lordship after lordship, Cao Cao asks for the opportunity to mount an invasion of the Southern lands of China to unify it under one banner. His first campaigns are met with unmitigated success, and two strong lords meet in the South, Liu Bei and Sun Quan (pronounced “Sun Chuan”)  and decide to join their forces together, all 50,000 of them, in a desperate attempt to defend their freedom against Cao Cao‘s force of 800,000 troops. The story revolves around the epic heroes of this clash, one that changed the course of history forever.

How else could you make a story more epic than that?! Add John Woo, sit back, and enjoy the awesomeness. Much like with Harry Potter, I’ll tackle both movies as one, since they complete one long narrative.

+ The Story-telling

Zhuge Liang and Zhou Yu... Let the Bro-mance begin.

In the Romance of the Three Kingdoms, there are a lot of heroes, and a lot of individual stories. That’s why often the most successful war epics, say Band of Brothers or A Game of Thrones, are done as mini-series because you essentially have 10 hours to flesh out all the unique characters in your story, unlike say the film Troy, where characters like Odysseus, Ajax and Ajax the Lesser, Menelaus and Aeneas, all characters who had major roles in the epic, but were relegated to very small roles to Achilles, Hector and Paris.

Red Cliff chose a great way to tell the narrative. The main struggle revolves around Cao Cao, and the mind games between him and the strategists of the allied forces, Zhuge Liang and Zhou Yu, and though the other characters had less screen time, Woo found a way to layer each character through the way they fought and smaller actions that happened along the way. The result of this is that even the supporting generals on the allied front had very distinct characters, characters that stir some emotional attachment to the audience.

The pacing of the movies are a little slow, but never boring. It has a clash of high-action mixed in with silent moments, and the interplay is pretty well done. Like a great song, the loud and silent moments of the plot make for a great piece and the whole delivers beautifully.

+ Dialogue

Great composition of shots

The films had such philosophical dialogue, some sentences actually sound like they are lifted from either Sun Tsu or Confucius. The movies are filled with so many thoughts and ideas, like something along the lines of: Its interesting how a sandal can be made of such weak material as straw and be very strong, one straw alone will snap with a little pressure, but if the straws are tied together, nothing can pull them apart.

There are lots of little pearls of wisdom in the dialogue like this, very philosophical, not too deep that it flies over peoples heads, a little cheesy, and yet not to the point of detracting from the experience. It was pretty decent. Their vocal tones also sounded very clear (I watch these movies subtitled whenever I can), and pronounced them in a way that almost sounded play-like, at least from what I could tell.

+ The Look

Looks like a general to me.

Like any good fantasy epic, these movies are amazing to look at. The composition of the shots were great. The scenes never looked too cluttered, and some shots, though looking pretty CG at times, were breath-taking in a “that-would-look-great-as-a-painting/poster” kind of shots. Shots of the ravines, the Yang Tze River, and the giant naval regiments and armies, cavalries etc, for example were all very well executed.

The costumes were another noteworthy accomplishment. They made every single main character stand out in their own unique way. The clothes were meticulously designed, and looked great. The contrast of the leaders of the allied forces all looking so unique made for an interesting counterpoint to Cao Cao’s forces who were very uniformed in their mode of dress. The weapons looked really cool too, and the choreography, oh the choreography….

+ The Choreography

If there's one thing John Woo can shoot, its action.

Red Cliff had some amazing action sequences, and paid pretty good homage to the Chinese epics that came before it. The fight scenes were orchestrated to look like a dance. The editing was beautiful (for the most part, see below) and the way the fighters moved was pretty fluid. It mixed the martial art styles of Once Upon A Time In China, and those 80’s to 90’s Chinese period films, with the artistry of House of Flying Daggers, Hero and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, without leaning too much in either direction. At the end of the day it was still a kick-butt fest, so it still looked more action-y than artsy, just the way I like it. It even had some incredibly awesome scenes, like there’s one scene where one of the warriors is attacked with a spear, he dodges the spear by mere inches, clutches it in between his chest and his arm, breaks it off, and uses it to stab the guy who attacked him, while he’s carry a baby! I mean, by far the best part of this production was that it was packed with…

+ Sheer Manly Balls

Dodge 20 spears? Easy.

I can’t help myself, the best part of these movies is simply how awesome they make everything look! One guy shoulder tackles a horse, and afterward throws the rider into six other guys fighting him. Another character is captured and ordered to kneel in front of Cao Cao, they even strike his legs with the wood end of their spears and he won’t bend. He then proceeds to beat the guards around him, throwing a spear a few inches away from Cao Cao‘s feet, and rides off carrying his group’s flag.

These are only some of the unequivocally awesome things Red Cliff has. The two strategists have a conversation based solely on the playing of their guzheng or Chinese harps as if they were electric guitars (without being cheesy/comedic). Its just a pair of movies that’ll grow hair on your chest. Heroes mowing down soldiers left and right, tactical battles shifting the David and Goliath match-up, a Bro-mance between the two strategists and how they bond manly-style, a couple of beautiful girls, and epic scenery just makes two awesome films. Not a perfect pair of films, but extremely entertaining and kick-ass films nonetheless.

Beautiful and Deadly

– Editing (some parts)

When you make an epic, there is a big chance of going over-timed. The movies, especially towards the second part started to have awkward editing cuts, there was a part where one scene was at night, and the very next scene was in daylight. I understand that the time is during twilight before the morning, but the way it was chopped up wasn’t very good and snapped me out of the whole experience. There are also some points where it feels like they cut a scene out for being too long, its not that bad, but sometimes I did get that feel that there was something removed from here and there. It wasn’t so bad, but it was noticeable.

– Dependence on Historical Familiarity

The movies were amazing for me, since I’ve read up on the Romance of the Three Kingdoms, and have been a huge fan of the Dynasty Warriors games since the first one (the fighting game) came out on the PlayStation 1. For those who aren’t familiar with the stories and myths of the era may find Red Cliff a bit confusing and lose some of the appeal, if only by a bit. Being familiar with the legends surrounding the movies would make them so much more entertaining if you do choose to watch. It is a bit weaker on its own, but still pretty awesome in any case.

My Cent’s Worth: 8.5/10
9/10 if you’re familiar with the legends

Red Cliff is an awesome production and by all means is a cinematic piece that I highly recommend to everyone, especially all you dudes and bros out there. Its got everything an action movie needs, and then some. I’ve seen both films a couple of times, but I’d still jump at the chance of watching them again with friends. And at the end of the day, more than any criticism I can make, that’s how I know I’ve seen some good movies.

By the by, here’s the trailer:

Posted on August 9, 2011, in Film Reviews and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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