Red Cliff, Part One
Cast: Tony Leung, Takeshi Kaneshiro, Zhang Fengyi
Writer(s): John Woo, Chen Han, Shang Heyu
Director: John Woo
Release: 10 July 2008
China Film Group, 146 mins., Not Rated
Distributed by Magnola Pictures (U.S.), 2010 DVD release
Plot: Prime Minister Cao Cao rebels against the Empire; war ensues.
The discs for Red Cliff parts one and two arrived in my mailbox about three weeks ago, and it was only yesterday where I finally sat down to bite the pullet and give it a go. Honestly, I wasn't much looking forward to a Asian historical motion picture with a bunch of characters with bizarrely-sounding names. The primary reason for renting the discs in the first place was genuine curiosity and positive word-of-mouth. Despite the two and a half-hour running time for both parts, I figured by the time I finished the first bit, I would be hitting my head against my bookshelf in disbelief why I hadn't watched it sooner. Turns out I was right - Red Cliff exceeded my expectations, and was actually enthralling basically every minute of its long-ish running time. Even the political aspects of the film I didn't mind.
The first 10 minutes are dedicated to set-up, and the rest of the movie is all action. Well, not all, but a large chunk. I'd say overall there's a good 50 minutes of simply action, y'know, combined. But the film isn't all action. Gawd, no. It's a beautiful film following a cast of characters that never fail to intrigue. Amongst the very, very large cast of characters, I think particularly to the odd relationship between Grand Viceroy Zhou Yu and Chief Strategist Zhuge Liang. Enemies in any other situation, these two men are cunning, intelligent, and exude a aurora of power whenever they speak, or simply direct their eyes. Any sequence with these two characters/actors in is truly spectacular. A year or so from now when I look back on Red Cliff, it won't be the friggin' awesomely choreographed action scenes that I'll fondly remember - it'll be their relationship and the charismatic performances by the lead actors.
This reminds me of two sequences I wish to point out due to their splendidness: Zhuge Liang arrives to persuade Zhou Yu to go to war with him, and at night, Zhuge is invited to play musical with Zhou. What follows is a interesting three minute scene where Zhuge and Zhou size each other up, essentially, without a single word. Their musical rhythm reveals their inner soul, their inner desire. It's here that Zhou reveals his allegiance to fight; and Zhou mastery's of, well, it seems everything. The second sequence I'd like to point out is near the conclusion, where Zhou and Zhuge deliberate their plan of attack against a seemingly indestructible foe. Seriously, it makes Helm's Deep look easy by comparison. The wonderful camerawork as Zhou and Zhuge discuss, and by God, it's one of the most captivating strategy-discussing scenes I've ever saw, and it's just these two men talking outside, looking on yonder at their enemy.
Speaking of cinematography: directorially speaking, John Woo proves himself a master with the camera. The screen caps alone do not do the picture justice. There's a 120 second shot that I'm sure has made its rounds in discussion, but I again find it noteworthy: in the last 20 minutes, a gorgeous, seamless tracking shot of a pigeon flying from Red Cliff to across the water to the enemies camp is breath taking. The transfer of live action to digital and back to live photography is the most accomplished I have ever seen - even in the likes of Avatar and ILM productions. Beautiful aerial shots are in abundance throughout the picture, and never have I more yearned to go to China then after watching this. Even simple talking scenes have some sort of cinematic spark, whether it be a quick zoom or slowly panning from one character to another. The camera is the #1 star of Red Cliff, for sure, and I would recommend it to any professors of cinematography to use to their students to convey what one should aspire to.
Another aspect of Red Cliff that definitely deserves some praise - awesome fight/war sequences. Now be mindful, this isn't a Jackie Chan or Jet Li production where our actors fly off some commonplace objects and wows up with their agility; this is a truly fight to the death, every-punch-is-a-deadly-punch war. But that doesn't mean they don't get to show off some fancy moves. Indeed, there's some awesome fighting skills on display here. The simple awesomeness of watching a general engage in combat with his bare hands against a battalion of men with spears and swords - and end up victorious is nothing short of spectacular. Plus, the movie is quite bloody. And I don't mean horror film blood spraying all over the place, Kill Bill-y. There's buckets of blood, yes, but done in a more realistic-ish manner. So what do we got? A historical epic with war, awesome combat skills, a good chunk of blood, and some truly intriguing characters to pull this mega epic forward? Yeah, we got a winner!
Overall, Red Cliff: Part One is a masterful art of filmmaking. I myself would compare it to something like Akira Kurosawa's fantastic works, but I'm sure that would be somewhat close to blasphemous to some readers. Basically, it's a epic story that maintains its level of epicness, but is so personal, so character-bound, that the whole overall arc becomes secondary until a giant bloody war scene comes about, then you remember it again. (Wow, that was a bad sentence) Oh, and also, one aspect I forgot to mention was the score. Simply remarkable, ladies and gents, simply remarkable. If anyone's familiar with Bear McCreary's work, the bloke behind the gorgeous melodies of Battlestar Galactica (2004), there's a lot of similarities to the two pieces, and I quite think you'd enjoy it. Basically, I can't recommend Red Cliff: Part One enough. Now, please excuse me while I go pop in Part Two...