Monday, February 28, 2011

Red Cliff

Recently, my husband and I have been watching a lot of Asian cinema through Netflix, and I want to recommend the Chinese epic-war film Red Cliff, International Version -- Parts I and II.

Note: Do not confuse this with Red Cliff Theatrical Version, which is a condensed version about 2.5 hours long. I've heard the theatrical version is stinky caca-poopoo by comparison. You want to watch both parts (about 4-5 hours in total so make sure you've got LOTS of popcorn!)

I admit it took some skillful coaxing (i.e., persistent begging and pushing) on my husband's part to convince me to watch it. Normally, I'm not too keen on John Woo. As a director, I think he's about as subtle as a blow to the head with a poleaxe. Also, I tend to find his visual metaphors kind of cheesy and melodramatic. (Seriously, a white dove? In every movie?) However, I loved this film so much, I may go back and re-evaluate him.

I wish that I had read up on the Battle of Red Cliffs prior to watching the film because I had difficulty understanding what was happening at the start of the movie. I get the feeling that this battle is like our Gettysburg in that every Chinese child probably learns about it in third grade. Therefore, they don't need a whole lot of details to understand what is happening. However, for me, some background information would have been helpful. If you plan on seeing this film, I suggest checking out this Wikipedia article first.

Without giving you too many spoilers, the plot of this movie is based on events that occurred toward the end of China's Han dynasty and the Battle of Red Cliff (208-209 AD). The emperor is an ineffectual figurehead. The megalomaniacal warlord Cao Cao has finished years of campaigning to stamp out any independent warlords in the north, and he has just been given the authority to do the same in the south. It sounds like a super plan, but with such a weak ruler on the throne, the fear is that he will simply stage a coup after he's done. Despite Cao Cao's enormous army (800,000 strong), he meets resistance in the south from the much smaller allied forces of Liu Bei and Sun Quan.

Originally, Red Cliff, Part I was released for Chinese audiences in 2008 and Part II in 2009. Part I is dark and grim with body parts flying everywhere. However, these horrific fights are in stark contrast to some tranquil indoor scenes that are brimming with quiet beauty and tenderness. I generally don't like seeing even fake blood because it makes me feel all woozy and vasovagal, but the contrast is vital in a film like this. The scenes at home underscore the savagery of war. They also remind us that there are things worth fighting for, and there is honor in doing so.

Part II almost seems like a different movie from Part I. I wonder if John Woo was influenced by the release of Lord of the Rings because I see a lot of similarities. (My husband and I even started referring to the characters as Gimli, Legolas, and so on.) Part II is still serious, but it's much lighter, funny even.  I had no idea John Woo could be humorous, but we were actually laughing out loud during a few scenes.

If you like the LOTR trilogy (and I do! I do!), I think you would appreciate this film. It's about little guys fighting to protect their homeland against the big, bad guy that wants to take over. It's action-packed, and it's very similar in the kinds of grand, sweeping visuals it presents. The scenery makes me want to hop on a plane and visit China.

Also, like LOTR, friendship and trust are a central theme in this movie. It's developed in various touching ways through the camaraderie between between Liu Bei, Sun Quan, their generals, and their advisors. The film also speaks to the issue of trust and loyalty between men who fight and the people they defend. By comparison, a lack of friendship and trust are Cao Cao's undoing.

I know I've just finished comparing this movie to LOTR, but I don't want you to get the wrong idea. Red Cliff definitely stands on its own and has a distinctly Chinese sensibility. I also understand that Woo strove to remain faithful to chronicles of the event and historical details such as military tactics, clothing, etc. However, he is John Woo, so there's still a hint of magic.

I'm not a music person, but one piece left me breathless. There is a scene in which Zhuge Liang, Liu Bei's strategic advisor attempts to persuade Zhou Yu, Sun Quan's viceroy that they should unite against Cao Cao's invasion. (These characters are played by the yummy Takeshi Kaneshiro and the incomparable Tony Leung respectively.)  In this scene, the two men play a traditional stringed instrument called the guqin. The music is like crazy ancient Chinese rock. It's so tumultuous, so chaotic and otherworldly it gave me shivers. I wish I could find a clip online for you, but they've all been blocked.

One final thought on this movie -- I want the clothes. All of them. Well, maybe not the hats, but everything else.

Sorry to be skimpy with the details, but I don't want to ruin this film for anyone who hasn't seen it. You can check out the trailer below, though. If you have seen it, I'd love to hear what you thought about it! What's your favorite scene?

Overall Rating: Despite the white birds, two thumbs up! (one from me, one from my husband)


Jodi said... [Reply]

This looks exactly like something Zach and Charla would love. I'll have to tell them to visit here.

Julie said... [Reply]

Oh yeah, I could definitely see this film as being something right up their alley, too!

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