Even in the shortened 148-minute form in which it’s being released in this country, John Woo’s “Red Cliff” is an epic, and not just in length. It feels like a Homeric poem translated to the screen—massive, lapidary, featuring iconic figures rather than deeply human characters. But the sweep and visual splendor provide ample compensation.
The plot deals with a huge battle at the titular bluff on the Yangtze river that occurred early in the third century A.D. and marked the end of the Han dynasty. The story is one familiar to Asian audiences but largely unknown to westerners, and a major strength of this treatment is that it delineates what’s happening at each point strategically and tactically with estimable clarity, even if some of the topographical details in individual scenes of combat tend to be a bit obscure.
In outline, the plot is very simple. Chief Minister Cao Cao (Zhang Fengyi) of the Han emperor he’s set up as a puppet has largely cleared the North of rebel warlords, but one remains: Liu Bei (You Yong), against whom Cao leads an enormous army that compels him into retreat. Liu’s strategist Zhuge Liang (Takeshi Kaneshiro) persuades him that his sole hope is an alliance with the great warlord of the South, Sun Quan (Chang Chen). Zhuge goes to his court to negotiate, but finds that the person he most needs to convince is Sun’s brother and viceroy, Zhou Yu (Tony Leung Chiu-wai). That proves surprisingly easy, particularly after word comes that Cao is leading a huge force down the Yangtze to confront the southerners by both land and in the naval combat in which the men of the South excel.
As the actual battle takes shape, other characters emerge, particularly two women—Sun’s tomboy sister Sun Shangxiang (Vicki Zhao), who goes behind enemy lines to send dispatches back to the Cliff’s defenders via carrier dove, and his beautiful wife Xiao Qiao (Lin Chi-ling), with whom Cao has been infatuated for years, and who plays a pivotal role in the outcome of the battle. In addition there are scores of generals and aides who triumph and fall on both sides, but the actors have been cannily selected for their physical distinctiveness as well as their thespian ability, so keeping them straight isn’t an insurmountable task.
That’s not essential in any case, as all of them—even the leads—are more types than fully rounded characters. Cao is the embodiment of merciless ambition, Zhuge of wily calculation and cunning, and Zhou of unblemished integrity and courage, and while the actors bring them charisma, they don’t really humanize them. What’s important isn’t so much the players but the huge set-pieces against which they’re placed—the opening battle in which Liu is defeated, the typhoid epidemic that strikes Cao’s army (which he then cagily transmits to the enemy), a sequence in which Zhuge steals arrows from Cao’s forces, and the long, episodic final confrontation.
All are staged with amazing virtuosity by Woo and his cinematographers Lu Yue and Zhang Li. Some moments—the tracking shot of Cao’s fleet coming down the Yangtze, the long flight of the dove into his camp—are literally breathtaking. And the final battle, which starts with a flotilla of fire-boats (whose use has to be timed precisely with Zhuge’s mystical wind calculations and a tea-making ceremony by Xiao) and continues to massed assaults on Cao’s stockade with firebombs, is choreographed on a scale that dwarfs the biggest Hollywood productions. Of course, the size alone would mean little without the panache that Woo brings to the party, including some nifty martial arts moves and tongue-in-cheek twists.
“Red Cliff” has the feel of a Sergio Leone western epic transferred to the east, a kind of “Once Upon a Time in China” that, despite the unfamiliarity of the historical episode to American audiences, will enthrall them nonetheless if they’re simply willing to make an effort and read the subtitles (a spoken narration sets the stage at the start, but doesn’t continue into the main story). Pictorially it’s a magnificent achievement, with shots of massed armies viewed from Olympian heights of a sort that haven’t been seen on the screen since “Spartacus.” And in terms of the narrative, it’s both fascinating and fun—so good, in fact, that after watching this cut you might just want to search out the director’s original 280-minute version.