— by JOEL CRARY —
John Woo’s “Red Cliff,” the first project of the now permanently Hollywood-ized director to be set in China and written exclusively in Mandarin in 16 years, clearly reveres Sun Tzu’s ancient “Art of War” treatise in the way it portrays war as a universal tango of circumstance and strategy. The director has obviously tried hard to achieve the perfect balance between physical violence and spiritual enlightenment, and while the effort adds poetry to most of “Red Cliff”’s battle scenes, much of the film remains muddled and confounding.
Perhaps Woo’s original material makes it clearer. The North American release of “Red Cliff” represents a compression of two films into one, taking the total run time from over four hours to around two and a half. It’s apparent from the film’s initial moments, in which a narrator who bleeds ridiculous American action flick gravitas can be heard summing up the political climate of third century China in a couple of baritone paragraphs. It does nothing to shake the illusion that this release of “Red Cliff” is little more than hyper-kinetic trailer material extended to a bloated length.
Set during the Eastern Han Dynasty and based in part on Guanzhong Luo’s “Romance of the Three Kingdoms,” the narrative follows the efforts of southern warlords Sun Quan (Chen Chang) and Liu Bei (Yong You) to unite at Red Cliff and thwart Chancellor Cao Cao’s (Fengyi Zhang) efforts to gain control of the lands south of the Yangtze River. The warlords are aided by a strategist known as Kongming (Takeshi Kaneshiro), who carries a fan made of crane feathers and flaunts a proficient eye for military formations, oldies but goodies that will give the Southlanders a sporting chance against Cao Cao’s intimidating numbers.
Kaneshiro is a magnetic actor, and it is gratifying to see his character’s talents put to use. Kongming orchestrates attacks with a wry smile, exploiting the enemy’s assumptions and using the weather to the southern armies’ advantage in battle. Once Liu Bei’s forces fall back, the need for additional ammunition grows tenfold, and Kongming’s solution for procuring it is an inventive one that takes advantage of the environmental conditions, involves an armada of straw boats and requires not a single retaliatory shot.
A romantic subplot involving rebel Viceroy Zhou Yu (Tony Leung Chiu Wai) and his wife Xiao Qiao (Chiling Lin) persists, with the latter infiltrating Cao Cao’s camp and proving instrumental in the Battle of Red Cliffs. A meditative sequence in which Xiao Qiao lectures Cao Cao over the preparation of tea boils the act of war, and the risks of a general’s ego, down to its beautiful simplicity. To see formations come together and function to their intended purposes underscores the appeal of war to those detached from its violent execution.
Unfortunately, due to its over-stylization, the whole project feels detached. Woo is too excitable in his direction. Every moment of dramatic tension is hurt by his inability to hold a shot for more than five seconds, his preference for gratuitous slow pans in close-up, his repeated use of jagged slow motion to achieve an overbearing visceral impact. All of these excessive, rapid-fire tendencies hurt Woo’s efforts at creating the type of epic he no doubt had in mind, as the film can’t balance the artful with the barbaric and inevitably gives way to the latter.
Robert A. Ferretti (of “Die Hard 2,” “Under Siege”) has been credited with editing the film for North American presentation, and I can’t help but wonder if his decisions have turned John Woo’s complete vision into something far more rudimentary in order to attract an English-speaking audience (having not seen Woo’s original work, it’s hard to say). While “Red Cliff” is technically efficient, ambitious and a marvel of stunt coordination, it lacks emotional resonance and the necessary weight of historical significance.
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