Korean Romantic Comedy
In Asia, John Woo's costume epic is divided into two parts, one released in late 2008 and the second part currently playing in Asia this month. Seeing as this film is only part one of two, it is a little difficult to judge just how it would play out. John Woo returns to Asian filmmaking with his adaptation of the Chinese classic "Romance of Three Kingdoms" called "Red Cliff" (aka. "Battle of Red Cliff"). This film is a star-studded serving with some of Asia's top performers and it is a little more faithful to its source material than the recent "Three Kingdoms: Resurrection of the Dragon". A little more faithful yes, but the film still has the usual John Woo stereotypes--exaggerated unrealistic action, eye-candy fight scenes, with the usual themes of brotherhood and friendship birthed from the fires of war.
208 A.D., The Battle of Chang Ban. Liu Bei (You Yong) narrowly escapes the siege by the forces of prime minister Cao Cao (Zhang Feng Yi) and this minister's lust for supreme power continues unabated. Strategist Zhuge Liang (Kaneshiro Takeshi, Returner) fears that Liu Bei and the Shu kingdom will not be able to withstand the armies of Cao Cao and proposes an alliance with the Kingdom of Wu. However, Sun Quan (Chang Chen) is reluctant to challenge Cao's ire. Zhuge Liang instead approaches the Wu Kingdom's chief strategist, Zhou Yu (Tony Leung, Lust Caution) to try to convince Sun Quan. Zhuge and Zhou are both kindred spirits and both are well-trained in the arts of war, they form a connection immediately. The two master strategists decide to engage Cao Cao at the water port of Red Cliff. This decision comes not a moment too soon, as Cao Cao is advancing with an army that vastly outnumbers the combined Wu and Shu forces. But Zhuge Liang is confident that his schemes and maneuvers can win them a victory.
The "Romance of Three Kingdoms" is a Chinese classic, its tales are told in TV dramas, novels, and even in video games (Koei's "Dynasty Warriors"). This high-budget Woo directed film has a lot of expectations going for it. "Red Cliff" is entertaining and solid, has awesome production values and the film is indeed a spectacle that is worth a look--notice I said it's worth a look, but NOT a film that is truly epic that overflows with grandeur. The film is good but it isn't as compelling as people hoped for. John Woo diverts the intricate complexities of its source material to his usual stereotyped themes and motifs, and in this way, he lessens the film's true significance. Woo isn't a complex storyteller, and definitely lacks realism in his execution. The director sidesteps the political importance and opts for a very positive view of brotherhood. The film does have a theme that most people can relate to and avoid a division of expectations, but it is a cheap way out. A film of this caliber should have a powerful historical context to be truly "epic" and become unforgettable. I wanted a political revelation of corruption, a bleak overview of war and the tragedies of the price of war; such as human lost and the cost of lives.
Brotherhood--well, it is so overdone. War is portrayed as necessary and brings honor and glory. One may say that war is a vehicle to reach a pinnacle of manhood? Brave men meet brave men in the fields of combat. The film also has a similar scene with "Three Kingdoms" where Zhao Yun (aka. Zhao Zhilong in "Three Kingdoms") rescues the infant child of Liu Bei. In this film Woo shoots the film with his usual style, music, machismo-laden scorching gazes, extreme close-ups and slow-motion; it is almost as if Woo was trying to upstage the scene with Andy Lau in "Three Kingdoms".
I've read that John Woo said in an interview that he is basing this film in the historical records "Chronicle of Three Kingdoms" rather than the novel "Romance of Three Kingdoms" to give it more historical accuracy. I have a question; if the battles are "historically accurate", would a commander send his best warriors to massacre an already cornered enemy? There was a scene where the iconic characters came out of the ranks to fight cornered troops (The trap was very cool by the way), I rather thought that best warriors were saved for the most extreme situations--maybe it was to intimidate--or maybe to demonstrate the usual John Woo style fight scenes that look so overly choreographed and so exaggerated? It does serve to introduce the characters but the film also loses some credibility in historical accuracy. Still, the servings of action that highlights the rescue of Liu Bei's son, the Battle of Chang Ban, the nicely shot "battle formation" to overpower Cao's huge force does provide a lot of entertainment value and abundant "Woo style" action sequences. (you do know what I mean with the "Woo style" don't you?)
The action is usually in the first act and the last act, and I admit, they were fun to watch. The film does carry some rather insignificant scenes that felt like they were minor "fillers" to slow things down but I also appreciated the attempts in trying to respect the source material. Those unfamiliar with these characters will have no issues following the proceedings and those who played "Dynasty Warriors" will be taken to nostalgia lane. The execution of strategy by the iconic characters are also quite appealing and this element is what makes the film better than Daniel Lee's "Three Kingdoms".
The performances are quite good. Tony Leung and Takeshi Kitano, are rightfully cast, they display a lot of charisma and very firm in their performances. I was very impressed with model Lin Chi-Ling who carries most of the emotions, and Woo guides her thoroughly. Zhang Fengyi is all arrogance and pride as the tyrant Cao Cao, that viewers will no doubt feel some repulsion towards him. Hu Jun, Shido Nakamura, Vickie Zhao and the rest of the supporting cast did well in adding some interactions. The lush cinematography, gorgeous set designs and elaborate costumes does add some additional points. Oh, the doves that usually are in his films make an appearance, however insignificant--so John Woo fans will be thrilled.
The film is quite good, it does almost stop to a crawl midway in the film, but I rather enjoyed it with the second viewing. Two significant battles in more than two hours and cheesy characterizations, the film is a respectable outing but hardly epic, and lacks a certain feeling you get when you see a truly powerful epic motion picture. The film does prove a little too long and almost seemed to lack emotions, the complexities and meditations of war are exchanged for honorable brotherhood, while it does make an easy connection, it does not make it a truly compelling film. Perhaps this is a product of the fact that this is a two-part film, and I reserve final judgment until I see the second installment. I hope to see all my dissatisfactions fulfilled in the final chapter, one can pray that John Woo had save the best for last. I'm in for "Red Cliff 2"!
Recommended! [4- Stars]
Note: There has been assumptions that the two films will be edited into one 3 hour plus film in its U.S. release.
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