After I've shared my thoughts on John Woo's first film adaptation "Red Cliff", you can just tell that I found it a little too underwhelming and full of insignificant scenes. It was good, but not incredibly good. The final installment to Woo's rendition of "The Romance of Three Kingdoms" needed to be better, bigger and more compelling. These two films have an enormous budget--said to be the most expensive undertaking in Chinese filmmaking to date. Well, "RED CLIFF 2" delivers--it features better action, excitement, rousing battle sequences and emotion. I'm not a John Woo fan but this film may be the best film he has ever made. "Red Cliff" is pretty good, not perfect, but pretty damn good.
Continuing the saga of "Romance of Three Kingdoms", prime minister Cao Cao (Zhang Fengyi) is set to unleash a massive military invasion of the kingdoms of Shu and Wu, who had formed an allegiance to defend themselves against his massive forces. What happens is a battle of wits, manipulations and for strong morale. Cao Cao's forces dwarf the forces of the Wu leader (Chang Chen). However, with his viceroy Zhao Yu (Tony Leung) and Shu general Liu Bei (You Yong) with his chief strategist Zhuge Liang (Takeshi Kaneshiro), would never yield to Cao Cao's superior forces. The final battle is about to begin, and the freedoms of the Wu and Shu kingdoms are at stake.
John Woo has never been a complex storyteller and while the film does have his usual signature in elements of sentimentality and brotherhood, it doesn't dawdle. "Red Cliff 2" moves incredibly quick, and goes straight to military strategies and action with momentum. Woo dispenses further development of the story and goes straight for the throat. At the film's opening act, you will see Cao Cao employing his form of ancient biological and psychological warfare in sending the corpses of those soldiers who died from Typhoid fever, to infect the soldiers of his rivals. The rest of the film is a prelude to the final battle as Sun Xiang-Shang (Vicky Zhao) infiltrates Cao Cao's camp to spy on the opposing army. There are cool military strategies exhibited by Zhao Yu and Zhuge Liang--their efforts to pull off their false intelligence and their cunning ways to turn the tide served up exposition for the mutual admiration our two heroes have for each other. I was amused with Liang efforts to gain a 100,000 arrows as with Yu's manipulations to plant distrust among Cao Cao's ranks.
The film does serve up some doses of humor and while I think it did hamper the tone a little, I thought it was fun to see. Sun Xiang-Shang's exploits displays the strength of the Asian woman as with Yu's wife Xiao Quiao (played by Chinese model, Lin Chiling). Lin Chiling's performance proved quite impressive as she carries most of the emotional burden--this is her first major film, and I hope to see more of the beauteous actress. Woo gives the Xiao Quiao character to be served up as a sort of a "Helen of Troy", that Cao Cao has lustful feelings for her and is the hidden motivation behind his acts of aggression against the Shu kingdom. This motivation wasn't really fully confirmed but it gave Lin Chiling is chance to generate the needed emotions and the price of war. Tony Leung, Takeshi Kaneshiro, and the rest of the star-studded cast played their roles well. They are rightfully cast, Hu Jun plays a more machismo laden portrayal as Zilong Zhao than even Andy Lau in "Three Kingdoms". Zhang Fengyi adds a lot of compelling charisma to his antagonistic character--sure, much of the screen time goes to Leung and Kaneshiro's characters, but Fengyi knew how and when to grab attention; he proved an even more effective and compelling presence than in the first film.
For a Chinese epic film to succeed, it must have a truly rousing battle sequence and "Red Cliff 2" doesn't disappoint. Certain military strategies are laid out carefully, weather proved to be the deciding factor in its outcome. The battle is very long and goes full speed after the 70 minute mark. The Shu and Wu forces have everything to lose and they cannot afford to make mistakes. They carefully execute their battle plans, that includes precise timing, the use of fire, wave after wave of manpower. It was quite thrilling to actually see real people running around instead of the CGI-generated army. The battle is bloody and intense, I was impressed with the film's execution in the naval battle--they used a lot of fire and burned a lot of props. I do think that some of them were CGI-generated environments but one would be hard-pressed to notice. They were wonderfully shot with the use of multiple angles.
The siege on Cao Cao's camp is also the film's most exciting point. The fights then change from the bloody massive fights to focus back on the film's heroes and their individual efforts. Tony Leung, You Yong, Ba Zhen Za Bu, Hu Jun, Chang Chen and Zhang Jingsheng take the lead as they assault Cao Cao's stronghold. Alright, the action sequences were a lot stronger and unseats those seen in "Three Kingdoms". Hu Jun steals the show as the warrior Zilong Zhao, and Leung looked a little awkward with the action sequences. Some parts of it would require a large suspension of disbelief (some machismo is so strong that a half dozen arrows couldn't down one warrior) and some elements proved overly dramatic. Well, you are watching a John Woo film so expect the usual histrionics to display coolness in movement.
Purists of the novel will undoubtedly be a little turned off with the liberties it took from the source material, but one has got to remember that this is a film, meant for entertainment purposes and never for a history lesson. The direction is more energetic and solid this time around, and the performances of the cast is even better. The actors and actresses felt more comfortable with their roles and looked as if they were almost born to play their parts. Much of the film's weaknesses would come from Woo's clichéd elements and its diversion from the source material, but hey, I think the end product was still highly entertaining. The first film was the initial set up and "Red Cliff 2" is the pay off. I do think that the two films would be better edited together--dispensing much of the first film's overdone dialogue; Now that would be a real great, rousing Chinese epic! John Woo's "Red Cliff' series is indeed a grand expensive film but thankfully, with this climactic finale, it feels that it expressed his more personal touch. Not really a big John Woo fan, but I'm glad to have seen what may be his best film yet!
Oh, the white Dove does have an intricate part in its storyline. (You can't see a John Woo film without the doves!)
Highly Recommended! [4 ½- Stars]
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Red Cliff (Chinese: 赤壁; pinyin: Chìbì), also known as The Battle of Red Cliff, is a Chinese epic film based on the Battle of Red Cliffs and events during the end of the Han Dynasty and immediately prior to the period of the Three Kingdoms in ancient China. The film was directed byJohn Woo, and stars Tony Leung Chiu-Wai, Takeshi Kaneshiro, Zhang Fengyi, Chang Chen, Hu Jun, Lin Chi-ling and Zhao Wei.
Within Asia, Red Cliff was released in two parts, totaling over four hours in length. The first part was released in July 2008 and the second in January 2009. Outside of Asia, a single 2½ hour film was released in 2009. With an estimated budget of US$80 million, Red Cliff is the most expensive Asian-financed film to date. The first part of the film grossed US$124 million in Asia and broke the box office record previously held by Titanic in mainland China.