Reviewed by: JimmyO
What's it about
John Woo’s epic Red Cliff is based on a legendary 208 A.D. battle that ended the Han Dynasty. The battle is fought between a powerful Prime Minister and two Warlords who oppose him. This is an epic motion picture indeed.
Is it good movie?
Red Cliff is stunning. It is especially beautiful on Blu-ray. Yet before I saw the film, I had heard a few negative responses to it, including how different it was from its source material. With that in mind, I am not reviewing the history behind it, or the novel Romance of the Three Kingdoms by Guanzhong Luo. I will however go into the reasons why I feel this “Theatrical Cut” was, for the most part, unnecessary. Why a film that was two parts and ran for 288 minutes total should be cut down to 148 minutes for a US release… and of course it is really all about the money. Yes, this shorter version feels like it’s not the complete film, I will credit them for making it work as well as it does. Either way, director John Woo has crafted an epic war film that shines even when it is trimmed, just not as well as the full experience.
As I said, as much as I would prefer to see the entire film, the trimming down did not ruin Red Cliff. But at times, when you have short narration in English spoken early in the film, or when something felt like it was happening too quickly, that is when you really notice the difference. While this may have not necessarily hampered my enjoyment, it did feel incomplete. In this day and age, the studios will try and make a profit any way they can. As huge of a budget this was in Asia, it would’ve probably been too big a risk to release it in two parts in the states. Although, I personally would’ve rather they did, I understand the reasoning behind it. The theatrical cut is probably the one that will sell better here in the States. But thankfully, you have the choice as to which one you want to watch in the comfort of your own home. Both are very good films, even if the complete version is superior.
As for the story, John Woo takes a liberty or two with this historic tale. Based on the legendary 208 A.D. battle that was the beginning of the end for the Han Dynasty, there is a wealth of beauty strewn throughout. The story of two Warlords battling a mean-spirited Prime Minister is perfect for a massive, Lord of the Rings style cinematic experience. John Woo creates one of his best films with some of the most memorable battle scenes put to film in recent years. From the fantastic “turtle” defense sequence, to the amazing battle at sea, this is one of the best war films I’ve seen. And while it may take some time, I’m sure that years from now, this will be remembered as a major classic in Chinese cinema. Hopefully one that people all over will discover as well.
As far as performances go, I was equally impressed. I’m a fan of both Tony Leung and Takeshi Kaneshiro and they are terrific here. Also quite good is Fengyi Zhang as the vilified Cao Cao, a Prime Minister turned general who even uses a deadly illness to get to his enemies. And considering her lack of experience, Chi-Ling Lin was terrific as Xiao Qiao, Zhou Yu’s (Leung) wife. I applaud the casting for Red Cliff, especially since there were early controversies because of it. And the script is also very good, while it occasionally falls into melodrama, it works quite well. But the war is the thing. It was a fascinating look at fighting a war using nature’s elements within your strategy. Some of the most incredible moments include Zhuge Liang (Kaneshiro) using his knowledge of weather to find a way to defeat Cao Cao. And Woo captures it all beautifully, he truly manages to command the screen with the art of war, and this is truly art.
Video / Audio
Video: This 1080p High Definition is the way this film should be viewed. This is an impressive transfer.
Audio: As far as the 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio is concerned, it is also terrific. But make sure you change the audio before you view the film; it automatically plays the dubbed version which I almost never prefer. But if you prefer that over sub-titles, you don’t have to do a thing.
Upon first glance, the Special Features didn’t seem all that exciting. With The Making of Red Cliff: The Long Road (2:26:00), I was expecting more of the same. But what is actually there feels as it is this films Heart of Darkness. In almost the length of the feature, you get a behind the scenes glimpse as the hell that went into making Red Cliff. From a series of rainstorms to working with babies and animals that didn’t cooperate, this was a tough one. In fact, so much happens during production, it felt like John Woo was cursed and they heavens didn’t want him to finish the film. I’m sure happy he did. My only problem with this feature was the fact that sometimes the sub-titles were off, but once you get used to it, it is fine.
Next up we have A Conversation with John Woo: The Heroism and History of Red Cliff (27:00). I really didn’t appreciate the man conducting the interview; he just seemed a bit forced and sort of fake even if he did offer up some good questions. Yet it was great to hear Mr. Woo’s thoughts about the film. And the two do cover things such as “Historical Accuracy” and “Using Natural Elements in Warfare”. While this wasn’t quite as good as the documentary, it is definitely worth a watch.
Next up is by far the weakest of the extras. HDNet: A Look at Red Cliff (4:35) is exactly what you’d expect. This is a very brief and sort of pointless look at the film. After all the pain and suffering that went into Red Cliff, this almost felt like an insult.
Finally we have a few Storyboards to check out. While this is of the point your remote and click variety, I still found it interesting. But as far as great special features, the first documentary takes the cake.
There are also a handful of pretty good Trailers including “The Warlords”, “District 13: Ultimatum”, “Ong-bak 2: The Beginning” and “Wonderful World”, plus an ad for HDNet.
Red Cliff is a masterfully shot film, but I highly recommend the two part feature as opposed to this “trimmed down” version. While this still offers the beauty, some of the character elements are gone and it just feels a tad incomplete. But whether you prefer this or the two part version, you are getting a beautiful film that surrounds some truly epic battles. It is such a pleasure to see so many practical elements as opposed to all CGI. This is the kind of film that gives reason to owning a Blu-ray player.