Running Out of Karma: John Woo’s Red Cliff

Running Out of Karma is my on-going series on Johnnie To and Hong Kong cinema. Here is an index.

Five years after his last American film, 2003’s Philip K. Dick adaptation Paycheck, and a long, troubled and expensive shoot plagued by last minute casting changes, John Woo finally released the first half of his epic two-part film Red Cliff. It proved to be a critical and commercial success (at least in it’s full version, the butchered American release fared less well), breaking box office records across Asia and gathering a plethora of award nominations. To date it’s Woo’s last film, his only other projects in the ten years since his return to Hong Kong being an advisory co-director role for Su Chao-pin’s Reign of Assassins and The Crossing, due to be released sometime in 2014.

Red Cliff was released in two parts, in July, 2008 and then January of 2009, totaling about five hours of running time. The full version is widely available on Blu-Ray (look for the “International Version Part I & Part II” disc) and that’s how I watched it, in two sections over one 24-hour period a couple weeks ago. I’ll split this review into two parts as well.

Red Cliff Part One

This first half is almost entirely set up, with most of the 2 1/2 hours devoted to Takeshi Kaneshiro’s Zhuge Liang convincing the leaders of the Southern Wu Kingdom (Chang Chen as the King, Sun Quan, and Tony Leung as his top general, Zhou Yu) to join the rebellion against the evil Prime Minister Cao Cao, a brilliant general who has for all intents and purposes usurped the Emperor and declared war on anyone who resists his dictates. Based on the account of late Han Dynasty (circa 200 AD) historical events depicted in the 14th Century Romance of the Three Kingdoms, one of the Four Great Classical Novels of Chinese literature, Woo adds a degree of melodramatic motivation to what in the book (I’ve read the first half, which includes the events surrounding the Battle of Red Cliff, but my memory is a bit hazy, as usual) is more of a straight recitation of action, preceding as it does by several centuries the modern notion of the psychological novel.

Most bothersome in this re-envisioning is the implication that Cao Cao is fighting this whole war for the sake of a woman, Zhou Yu’s wife Xiaoqiao, played by Taiwanese supermodel Lin Chi-ling in her first film role. Woo lingers on Lin and Leung together, being affectionate and loving and having steamy candlelit sex, as if trying to inspire the same jealousy in the audience that his Cao Cao must be feeling. It’s unclear at this point if this storyline is going to end up being ridiculous, or an interesting Helen of Troy-type addition to the historical narrative. There are a couple interesting scenes with Cao Cao and a prostitute who looks like Xiaoqiao, kind of a Vertigo thing going on there hinting at Cao Cao’s possible madness. Better realized motivations are Sun Quan’s feelings of inadequacy before the memory of his more warlike older brother and father (resolved as all the best emotional crises are, with a tiger hunt) and Zhuge’s fascination with Sun’s sister, the wannabe warrior Sun Shangxiang, played by Zhao Wei. Subtlety of emotion or motivation has never been one of Woo’s strengths, so I don’t know that packing his war movie with so much of it was a wise idea.

Woo’s on surer footing with the relationship between Zhuge and Zhou, two men used to being the smartest in any room in which they find themselves, their relationship is one of deep respect and rivalry. They’re often seem to be the only two guys who actually know what’s going on, and their private jokes and shared wavelength is a far more compelling romance than Cao Cao’s blunted desire. Woo frames Kaneshiro and Leung closely together, his camera roving from one’s side of the screen to other’s, uniting them in their shifting one-upmanship.

We only get a couple of action scenes in Part One. It opens with the retreat of Zhuge Liang’s boss Liu Bei, the noble anti-Cao Cao leader, which provides a chance for each of his three superheroic generals to cut down dozens of extras. Part One climaxes with the first skirmish of the battle proper, as the Allied forces ambush Cao Cao’s cavalry in a neat demonstration of animal-based tactics as Woo explores the intricacy and violence of 3rd Century warfare. The infantry draw the small cavalry troop into a trap, with intricately coordinated movements of their shield wall isolating the various horsemen, who proceed to be cut down, first by spears, then by the generals (following the tradition of martial arts narratives, where the more powerful the person, the better their fighting skills). In the end, even Zhou takes part, Tony Leung throwing himself into the fray with the enthusiasm of one who actually knows what he’s doing. Only Zhuge Liang doesn’t take part: he’s an intellectual; strictly an advisor, not a fighter.

The Battle of Red Cliff took place in the early 200s, roughly contemporaneous with the events in Ridley Scott’s Gladiator and that film, along with Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings provides a clear inspiration for the CGI-enabled epic scale of Woo’s production. Long pull-out shots reveal hundreds of artificial ships as Cao Cao’s navy makes its way down the Yangtze; phony (or certainly at least digitally retouched) landscapes emphasize the beauty of the South and the need to preserve it from Northern aggression. Judicious use of digitally slowed and sped up motion (as in Tsui Hark’s 2005 Seven Swords) liven up the action’s long unbroken takes. Here the comparison with Gladiator is important, as Scott smears his action into blurry, swish pan and quick cut nothingness while Woo keeps everything crisp and organized, with overhead shots orienting us spatially while simultaneously making apparent the tactical ideas behind the coordinated troop movements painstakingly designed by Zhuge and Zhou.

Red Cliff Part Two

The second half of the film opens with a quick recap of the first, then throws us right into the action. Cao Cao has brought his army down the Yangtze and taken up position across the river from the Wu fortress at Red Cliff. With the help of two defecting southerners, Cao Cao has assembled a massive navy to supplement his cavalry and infantry. Here the differences between Southern and Northern China and the kinds of wars they fight becomes relevant. Southern China is river country, marshy and lush. Northern China is more desert-like, with vast flat plains between mountain ranges. Sothern transportation is on boats, Northern on horseback. There’s a cliche about the different styles of kung fu that developed in the two haves of the country, with the Northerners favoring a foot-based style with leaps and kicks, designed to dislodge horsemen, while the Southerners came up with a fist-based style, utilizing the strong arm muscles earned through a lifetime of rowing up and down rivers. Cao Cao’s Northern Army is used to cavalry attacks, they have no knowledge of naval tactics and his men are plagued by seasickness (not to mention typhoid and various other illnesses the Northerners have no developed immunity to). But the Southerners are not only literally on their home turf but have the advantage of fighting their kind of battle. Given this, the fact that they are outnumbered approximately 800,000 to 50,000 doesn’t quite concern them as much as you’d think.

Attempting to even the odds even further, as much as they can before the battle begins, Zhuge Liang and Zhou Yu make a wager. Again lost in their own world (Woo closes in very close on Kaneshiro and Leung, facing each other on opposite sides of the screen, their faces unnaturally close with all the other generals and advisors blurred out in the background) they challenge each other with a pair of impossible tasks. Zhuge must produce 100,000 arrows in three days while Zhou must somehow separate Cao Cao from his naval commanders. Failure to deliver means death. They succeed of course, but one’s subterfuge is certainly more clever than the other’s.

While the first half of the film was a lot of ground-laying and relationship building, the second half gets to unfold as a series of action and suspense sequences. There is one new relationship built, as Sun Shangxiang (the younger sister of Sun Quan) realizes her dream of taking part in the action on equal footing with the men by infiltrating Cao Cao’s camp in disguise. On the course of her reconnoitering, she meets a young, slightly goofy, low-ranking officer (played by Tong Dawei) and becomes friends with him (she’s disguised as a man for this adventure, in time-honored Chinese-girls-in-drag fashion). We first meet him as he distinguishes himself in a match of cuju, the most ancient form of soccer (note again the Northerners emphasizing feet, as even their preferred sport involves kicking a ball and not using one’s hands). This is all a pleasant diversion from the main plot, as Zhao Wei makes for a delightfully earnest and capable Sun and Tong is solid as a nice regular guy who just happens to find himself fighting for the wrong side of the war. Of course it will come back around in the final battle, but that predictability doesn’t make it any less sad.

Eventually, the preliminaries done away with and the ceremonial dumplings eaten (shouldn’t everything commence with the eating of ceremonial dumplings?) the Battle itself can begin. For literally hours, Woo has been teasing us with the massive CGI-scale of the assembled combatants, Cao Cao’s thousands of ships (locked together with iron bars to minimize seasickness) spied upon by the camera and Zhuge’s messenger pigeons. Timing proves everything to the final fight, as both sides prepare to set the other’s ships on fire. The difference is that Zhuge Liang, in addition to being a brilliant tactician is also a capable meteorologist. If Zhou Yu is the ideal of the wise, romantic poet warrior, Zhuge Liang is the scholar-as-farmer, the brainiac with his feet firmly on the ground. It’s Zhuge’s practical knowledge, the knowledge of the peasant classes, that allows him to accurately predict a change in the direction of the wind, and thus leads to the incineration of Cao Cao’s inexperienced, poorly led navy.

But even that wouldn’t have worked if it wasn’t for the heroic act of Zhou Yu’s wife, Xiaoqiao. Hearing that Cao Cao is apparently obsessed with her, she sneaks into his camp and makes him some tea. That sounds silly, but as performed by Lin Chi-ling the power and sexiness of the tea ceremony is readily apparent, as she corrects Cao Cao on the proper way to sip from his cup, the depths of his obsession become a little understandable. Thus distracted, Cao Cao waits to long to begin his attack, until after the fatal wind has shifted. His navy destroyed, it’s all he can do to marshal his land defenses, but the dazed Cao Cao, so flabbergasted at the awful destruction reaped by the fire, seems incapable of decisive action.

As the battle plays out, through the night and into the day, the rout is on and the drama comes from whether or not Xiaoqiao will be saved in time. The various generals rush into the heart of Cao Cao’s camp, leading to a classic multi-directional John Woo standoff, with swords in place of his traditional pistols. But this isn’t the true climax of the film, just of the Battle. Instead the peak comes in the final scenes further exploring the most fascinating relationship in the film, as Zhuge and Zhou say their goodbyes. Meeting on an impossibly lush hillside, the two friends recognize the fact that their nation, now spilt in three (“Three Kingdoms” you know), is not in a place of perpetual peace, that conflict between their respective rulers is inevitable. But their bond transcends petty politics, and the most moving love story of Woo’s career ends with the heroes locked together, nose-to-nose, the rest of their world irrelevant to the demands of mutual respect and honor and loyalty. To blood brotherhood.

Red Cliff deserves to rank with the great epic war movies of all-time. The battle scenes are intricately designed and beautifully shot, and the characters unique enough within their generic types (helped in no small part by an exceptional cast) to keep the spaces between the action interesting. Whether it’s due to the running time, or the daunting amount of Chinese history that the film builds upon, unknown to Western audiences (which similarly plagues Chang Cheh’s great historical epics The Heroic Ones, Shaolin Temple and The Boxer Rebellion), it seems that despite the film’s favorable notices on release, it has dropped through the cracks, reputation-wise. In an ideal world, it would be our generation’s Lawrence of Arabia.

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7 thoughts on “Running Out of Karma: John Woo’s Red Cliff

  1. Yes, more movies should have ceremonial dumpling scenes. My life should have more ceremonial dumplings.

    Anyway, I had the same experience with Romance of the Three Kingdoms as you had, in the sense that I also read only the first half at first (the year the film came out). I recently finished the other half and keeping a hazy memory in mind, I do think that it's more interesting than the first half, in part due to hubris being the undoing of all the heroes the book and the movie revere. So if you ever wonder whether or not to pick it up again and finish it, if you liked the first half I definitely would recommend it.

    I agree with your final sentiments. It should be! Yet, John Woo is still so often considered a has been either since he left for Hollywood or since the end of the '90s, such a shame. Though I suppose the truncated cut that was released in most western countries didn't help the movie's or his reputation…

    BTW, I thought I'd mention that your continued writing and podcasting on HK cinema is part of what inspired to do likewise in a series of articles this summer on my own (Dutch) site.

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  2. Thanks very much, that's very nice to hear. I hope you have fun with it and wish I could read Dutch.

    I definitely intend to finish the book someday. Though at this point it's been so long I'll have to start at the beginning again. I want to read the others as well (Journey to the West, Outlaws of the Marsh and Dream of the Red Chamber), along with all the Louis Cha books. I need to read more.

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  3. Amen to that! Though I've got plenty of western literature to go on my shelves before I venture eastward again…

    I wish that too. Well, if you're interested there's always translate plugins… but half of my readership won't know their Sammo Hungs from their Lau Kar-leungs, so some of it will be more introduction than you'd need, though I'll try to balance it.

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