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Red Cliff

(2008)
Id been hearing about this movie for a while; Im not the most up-to-date person on Asian cinema (not by a long shot), but occasionally a film is so extravagant or well-done that even I hear about it. My curiosity is often peaked by Asian historical pieces, because for the most part they seem to have an interest in taking them seriously and presenting the viewer with a visually stunning epic. In that aim, Red Cliff succeeds marvelously. The Chinese landscape is sumptuously displayed, along with huge navies and armies, and long, intense battle scenes. As befits an epic (and I watched the pared-down theatrical version that clocked in at 150 minutes, not the extended international version), there are dozens of characters to keep track of, although the plot is fairly straightforward. Basically what we have here is the Chinese version of The Iliad. Ambitious prime minister Cao Cao (Fengyi Zhang) raises a huge army and navy and seeks to confront the last real rival to his power, Zhou Yu (Tony Leung), a warlord whose capital is, you guessed it, the nearly impregnable fortress of Red Cliff. Zhou Yu has made an alliance with a lesser warlord, Liu Bei (Yong Yu), a man who controls only a small army, but has many mighty general working for him, foremost among them the almost Zen-like master of strategy, Zhuge Liang (Takeshi Kaneshiro you may have seen him in House of Flying Daggers). The vastly outnumbered defenders must find a way to thwart Cao Caos plans of dominating all of China, and the battle of wits is on. Theres a lot of maneuvering in setting up the alliance, and a lot and I mean a lot of battle portrayed here. In a 2.5 hour movie, Id say more than an hour is spent fighting. Which is fine, as its very well orchestrated and smartly shot, but if guys going at it with medieval weapons isnt your thing, be warned. But the characters are so well conceived and acted that they flare to life instantly, and though there are quite a few to keep track of (particularly on the allied warlord side), each one stands out both visually and temperamentally; I never felt lost or confused, and the film takes great care to give each general an introduction so you can keep track of who is who. Much of the plot is driven by the cleverness of the various warlords involved; neither Cao Cao nor Zhou Yu is stupid. But Zhuge Liang is a real genius, and some of his feints and traps and truly inspired. Im somewhat partial to a movie that holds intelligence and cleverness as high values though that doesnt mean that honor and courage take a backseat, as every one of the generals is also a mean hand-to-hand fighter (except Zhuge Liang, who never goes into combat). I guess Im taking the long way of saying its a fighting movie with a lot of brains. The battle scenes, while numerous, are also cleverly conceived and shot, and while there is some gore, director John Woo doesnt go overboard. I felt Red Cliff pretty much had it all where epics are concerned sweeping scope, interpersonal drama,

statements about war and honor, etc. I was completely caught up in the film and hardly noticed its length. Theres a fair amount of hype surrounding Red Cliff, but for me this is one of those rare instances where its quite deserved; Red Cliff lives up to its reputation, and is well worth a spin on your DVD player. April 26, 2010