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    Red Cliff

    Chinese chess

    John Woo turns a war story from the third century into a lavish and enthralling battle of military minds in "Red Cliff."


    Sure, "Red Cliff" lives up to its billing as a war epic. The battle scenes are indeed quite grand in scale — massive numbers of soldiers and troops on both sides, loads of swords, bow and arrows and heavy weaponry on display and powerful men who would be kings.

    Directed by: John Woo.
    Written by: John Woo, Khan Chan, Cheng Kuo, Heyu Sheng.
    Adapted from the novel "Romance of the Three Kingdoms" by: Luo Guanzhong.
    Cast: Tony Leung Chiu Wai, Takeshi Kaneshiro, Fengyi Zhang, Chen Chang, Wei Zhao, Jun Hu, Chiling Lin, Shido Nakamura, Yong You, Ba Sen Zha Bu, Yong Hou.
    Cinematography: Lü Yue, Zhang Li.
    Edited by: Robert A. Ferretti, Angie Lam, Yang Hongyu.
    In Chinese with English subtitles.

    Related links: Official site
    Landmark Sunshine Cinema
    143 East Houston St

    There is even a scene in which an armada of ships literally litters the Yangtze River in the thousands of thousands moving into position to strike. It's truly a magnificent spectacle.

    But it is the brilliant display of military (and personal) chess that is at the heart of director John Woo's latest production. "Red Cliff," which moves ever so effortlessly through its 2 1/2 hours of screen time, unspools as an exercise in military strategies — and in the process, shows off the good and evil of humanity.

    "Red Cliff" is a historical drama set in 208 A.D. China when Prime Minister turned General Cao Cao convinces Emperor Xian of the Han Dynasty to organize an invasion against the southern warlords Liu Bei and Sun Quan.

    Cao Cao's overwhelming power persuades Liu Bei's military strategist Zhuge Liang that their only hope for victory against Cao Cao is to form an alliance with Sun Quan and his chief general, Zhou Yu. The warlords are well aware that the battle ahead will decide the fate of China — and possibly, the end of the Han Dynasty.

    Red Cliff  
    Cao Cao's brutal push to crush the rebellion becomes apparent when an outbreak of typhoid grips his troops. As the casualties mount, Cao Cao, instead of giving them the proper burial rites, loads the bodies onto floating rafts and sends them toward the rebels' camp, inflicting the enemy with the disease. Without even lifting a sword, Cao Cao strikes first.

    But the rebels strike back. When they discover that they don't have nearly as many arrows as Cao Cao's army, Zhuge Liang devises a plan to retrieve 100,000 arrows from the enemy. He sets sail with a squad of small boats toward the enemy's camp. From a safe distance, the rebels fire arrows upon Cao Cao's massive ships. The enemy retaliates, lodging their arrows into straw dummies made by the rebels to capture such arrows. With such a masterful stroke, mission accomplished.

      Red Cliff
    Throughout all the battles, Zhou Yu, the rebels' chief general, shows off his prowess — in war and friendship. Zhou Yu demonstrates that he himself is willing to fight when his troops are in trouble and that he is willing to listen to and understand the concerns of his allies. International superstar Tony Leung, who plays Zhou Yu, conveys all of this through his very subtle gestures and smiles of affirmation.

    In the end, the rebels realize that they need the "will of the heavens" to defeat the Cao Cao's army. Zhuge Liang finds the key to victory in the wind — literally, in the wind. When the southern winds change, that is when they will take the fight to Cao Cao.

    So, the race is on to delay Cao Cao's advance — Zhou Yu's wife "surrenders" herself to the prime minister and engages him in a tea ceremony, distracting him and stalling the enemy from attacking first.

    When that pivotal moment does arrive, the rebels seize upon the wind change to drive their fire-burning barges into the sides of the enemy's camp — bringing the war to a climax and ending in a David-vs.-Goliath victory for the rebels.

    Now, how's that for checkmate?

    Red Cliff  
    "Red Cliff" is director John Woo's first foray into making large-scale movies in China. He has already done so in Hong Kong, with "A Better Tomorrow" and in Hollywood, with "Mission Impossible 2" and "Face-Off."

    Here, as in his other movies, Woo never loses the greatest strength in his filmmaking repertoire — telling very human stories against the backdrop of very large circumstances. Amid all the swordplay, military posturing, blood and death, Woo takes the time to show the affinity between chief general Zhou Yu and strategist Zhuge Liang, the loyalty of the rebel troops and the love shared by Zhou Yu and his wife.

    Woo always understands the big picture, so to speak, but he never ignores the details.

    They say that the devil is the details. In "Red Cliff," Woo certainly won his battle with the devil.

    NOVEMBER 18, 2009

    Reader comments on Red Cliff:

  • Horrible Review   from Joey Pompano, Dec 6, 2011

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