According to Shang Zuo over at Asian Wisconzine
, the Three Kingdoms period of Chinese history is immensely popular with Chinese as demonstrated by the classic novel Romance of the Three Kingdoms
written in the 14th century by Luo Guanzhong and the numerous films, TV series, etc. which have succeeded it. John Woo's Red Cliff
is the latest in this long line of dramatizations of the period. In China the film runs about five hours but we Americans get a version that is half that length.
As Zuo explains, the Three Kingdoms period took place in the 3rd century C.E. as the Han Dynasty was in decline. The kingdoms were the Wei, Shu, and Wu. Cao Cao, a Wei warlord expanded his power and territory through various battles. Red Cliff
begins with some voiceover narration explaining this general state of affairs before we see the pretender to the throne pressure the emperor to allow him to turn southwards to take on Liu Bei of the Shu kingdom.
Liu Bei's forces are unable defeat Cao Cao's so they eschew head-on confrontation in favor of protecting the villagers who are fleeing the marauders from the north. Bei sends his military strategist Zhuge Liang to forge an alliance with Viceroy Zhou Yu of the Wu kingdom. The two sit down and battle one another on Chinese zithers. Liang is successful and the new allies make their stand at Red Cliff against Cao Cao's massive navy and his hundreds of thousands of troops.
The film had a large budget by Asian standards and this along with Woo's presence means that the battle sequences are thrilling. They're expertly staged and seamlessly blend hordes of extras with CGI effects. Before the main battle itself, a group of Cao Cao's infantry are ambushed by Bei and Quan's combined forces in a tortoise maneuver which involves luring the troops into maze created by soldiers who form moving walls with their shields to separate the enemy into smaller and smaller groups. Woo and his DPs begin with a fantastic long shot before moving in and showing Cao Cao's forces slowly being picked off in the face of their incredibly coordinated enemy.
Considering that we're getting only half a film here, this version of Red Cliff
hangs together quite well. While we Americans no doubt got the vast majority of battle scenes, I would guess that there's more Cao Cao rampaging across the north that we missed. Plus there's surely lots of character back story left out as well since people's pasts are hinted at throughout the film. For instance, Cao Cao is entranced by Zhou Yu's wife. In the short version, we get a smidgeon of why this is so but it seems that there's more to be had since it is intimated that his feelings for her are at least a part of his motivation for war and their meeting towards the end of the film has immense ramifications.
Despite all this, the film's narrative remains cohesive and there's no scenes which leave you completely flummoxed for want of that which was left out.
Lastly, I want to publicly admit that I'm developing a man-crush on Tony Leung, who portrayed Zhou Yu. His scenes with Takeshi Kaneshiro's Zhuge Liang were some of the best of the film. Whether it be testing each other via a zither duel or plotting their moves against Cao Cao, their scenes are alternately graceful and intense. After seeing Leung in Lust, Caution
and now Red Cliff
, I am really taking to him. He has gravitas and charisma to burn. If I were a Jungian, I'd say that Zhou Yu was the full package – lover, warrior, magician, and king. He is a first rate strategist and leader of soldiers. Plus he kicks ass in hand-to-hand combat. Yet he halts military training to put a young boy's flute in tune and we see his tender side in scenes with his wife. Leung can be approachable and gentle when he wants to be and stoic or vicious when necessary.
Consider me his newest fan-boy.