“Red Cliff” - John Woo (2008)

Red Cliff (Chi Bi, 2008), directed by John Woo, is a historical drama based on events that took place in China during the early 3rd century CE, as the Han Dynasty was dissolving. Specifically, it concerns the famous Battle of Red Cliffs, which was a decisive event during this time that led to the succeeding period of the Three Kingdoms. The historical record of these events is recounted in the famous Chronicle of the Three Kingdoms. However, to understand the narrative importance of the movie and its significance to Chinese culture, one has to turn to one of the most famous literary works in Chinese history, Romance of the Three Kingdoms, a historical novel written by Luo Guanzhong in the 14th century that is considered to be one of the Four Great Classical Novels of Chinese literature. Guanzhong’s work was subsequently substantially edited by Mao Zonggang in the 1660s, and the work transmitted down to modern times contains a mixture of authentic historical information, the viewpoints of various original storytellers and copyists down the years, Luo’s viewpoint at the time of the Ming Dynasty, and Mao’s viewpoint at the time of the Qing Dynasty.

The resulting novel, Romance of the Three Kingdoms, covers a period from about 169 CE to about 280 CE, a period during which there was an extraordinary number of complicated battles, political struggles, and tumultuous shifts in power. Because of all of these events, the period occupies a significant position in the Chinese cultural imagination, including appearances today in comics and video games. The Romance of the Three Kingdoms as it stands today in English is over 1100 pages of battles, shaky alliances, double-crosses, assassinations, and counter-coups. Many educated Chinese are familiar with the entire story, but Westerners will be confused by the complicated machinations of the story. The Battle of Red Cliffs, which took place in 209 CE, is one key event during this period. It involves several important figures that play prominent roles in the larger Romance of the Three Kingdoms, and the backgrounds of these figures are likely to be much more familiar to Chinese audiences than to Western audiences.

When the Chinese contemplate the period of The Three Kingdoms and the Battle of Red Cliffs, then, they are not only concerned about what actually happened, but also the mythology that has evolved over the years surrounding those events. Thus the period stands in much the same way that the Trojan War would stand in Western culture. In the Chinese case the mythology tends to view things from a preferential Northern Chinese perspective, casting southern Chinese and those who may have weakened that hegemony in something of a disparaging light. Director John Woo’s film production follows the main narrative of the novel, but he admittedly attempted more of a balanced perspective by drawing information from the historical Chronicle of the Three Kingdoms, too.

John Woo established his fame with a string of brutal action-packed Hong Kong gangster films, including A Better Tomorrow (I & II), Bullet in the Head (my personal Woo favorite), Hardboiled, after which he shifted to Hollywood, where he made Face/Off and other somewhat tamer thrillers. Red Cliff involved a return to a Chinese setting, this time mainland China, and it is said to have had the most expensive budget in Chinese film history. Production was undoubtedly complicated, involving some 100,000 extras and the participation of the Chinese army, plus distractions like the departure during filming of principal actor, Chow-Yun Fat. Just to tell the complicated story of the Battle of Red Cliffs, Woo made a pair of two-hour films that were released as Part I and Part II of the story. But for his version of the story that has been released to Western audiences (i.e. with English subtitles) the two separate installments of the original film were condensed and combined into a single two-and-a-half hour film. It is this combined and shortened version that I am reviewing here.

With all these complicating backstory issues, there is till an interesting experience awaiting even the uninitiated viewer of this film. Although the novel features a large number of important figures in the events depicted, there are four primary characters that are the focus of the film:
  • Cao Cao is the Chancellor, or Prime Minister, for the Eastern Han Dynasty in the north. He has recently defeated all the warlords in the north, ostensibly in his role to help the Eastern Han Emperor, and was now seeking to reunify the empire by conquering the southern lands. But his foes feel that he is preparing to usurp the throne and take over for himself. One foe that Cao Cao has already defeated several times on the battlefield, but who has not yet completely succumbed, is the warlord Liu Bei. Cao Cao was famed for being a highly cultured personage and an accomplished poet.
  • Liu Bei is a warlord who is loyal to the Han Dynasty and is depicted in the novel as a heroic figure. At the time of the opening of the film, though, his depleted forces are fleeing Cao Cao’s much more powerful army that is attempting to finish them off.
  • Zhuge Liang is Liu Bei’s chief advisor and depicted as a brilliant strategist. He is viewed as one of the great Chinese heroes and is credited with coming up with several innovations, including the landmine and the repeating crossbow (examples of which are shown in the film). He is also depicted as having knowledge of astrology, qigong, and an esoteric understanding of the Tao Te Ching.
  • Zhou Yu is the Grand Viceroy for the Eastern Wu King, Sun Quan. Besides being an ingenious military strategist, Zhou Yu was also a cultured person, with skills in verse and music. Zhou Yu’s sister, Sun Shangxiang, plays an important role in the story, too.
At the outset of the film, Zhuge Liang goes south to the Eastern Wu court in order to propose and form an alliance with Liu Bei’s forces in opposition to Cao Cao, whose army is headed in their direction along the Yangtze River, both via land and water. The climactic battle between these allied forces and those of Cao Cao will take place at Zhou Yu’s stronghold at Red Cliff. The narrative structure of Red Cliff is then built around five key “battles” or struggles, each successive ministory consuming more screen time than the preceding one.
  1. Cao Cao’s attack on Liu Bei. Cao Cao had apparently been battling and chasing Liu Bei’s forces for some time. Liu Bei was shepherding some civilians from Xinye that had been under his rule when he came under attack from Cao Cao’s forces. Liu Bei’s refuses advice to withdraw and instead risks further losses to his depleted forces in order to protect the fleeing civilians, thus showing his sense of loyalty and duty to higher principles. The fighting shown here is hand-to-hand and bloody, with various acts of heroism on the part of Liu Bei’s forces. Narrative Outcome: Liu Bei is established as an honorable, loyal and compassionate warrior.
  2. The first Southland Attack on Cao Cao. Zhuge Liang goes on ahead to the Southland (Eastern Wu) and convinces Suns Quan and his chief advisor, Zhou Yu, to join forces with Liu Bei. But Cao Cao is said to have an army of 800,000 men, while the allied Southland forces amount to about 30,000. After Liu Bei arrives and Cao Cao’s forces set up quarters on the Yangtze river opposite Red Cliff, they launch a surprise attack employing the “tortoise shell strategy" devised by Zhuge Liang. Again there are lengthy scenes of brutal, hand-to-hand combat, with arms being chopped off and blood spurting everywhere. The results is a stunning, surprise (but not definitive) victory over Cao Cao’s forces. Narrative Outcome: Zhuge Liang is established as an ingenious military strategist.
  3. The Typhoid Battle. Some of Cao Cao’s troops begin to fall ill and die from typhoid fever. Rather than burn the dead bodies, Cao Cao order them to be put on canoes and sent across the Yangtze to the Red Cliff (Southland) side of the river. Upon arrival of the floating canoes, some compassionate Southland soldiers begin unloading the bodies, and they too fall ill spreading the contagion to the Southland army. This germ-warfare tactic of Cao Cao has devastating consequences to the already sparse forces of Liu Bei. Narrative Outcome: Cao Cao is shown to be unscrupulous and to be willing to employ any tactic in order to win.
  4. The 100,000 Arrows Battle. The Southland forces are running out of arrows, so Zhuge Liang devises an ingenious plan to “borrow” 100,000 arrows from Cao Cao (the intention is return them by shooting them back at Cao Cao’s forces in battle). Using his semi-occult powers, Zhuge Liang predicts a fog is coming, and prepares boats made of straw to approach the Cao Cao side of the river under the cover of the fog. Cao Cao’s forces fire an enormous barrage of arrows which become stuck in the straw of Zhuge Liang’s decoy boats. The boats then return to the Southland side of the Yangtze river without the lost of a single life, and 100,000 arrows are recovered for later use. Narrative Outcome: Zhuge Liang reputation for military genius and trickery is further enhanced.
  5. The Fire Battle. Cao Cao intends to take advantage of a prevailing wind in the direction of Red Cliff to set fire to the Southland docks which will then overwhelm the Red Cliff side with fire. However, Zhuge Liang’s esoteric skills enable him to predict a crucial change in the wind direction, which will favor his side. Then with the help of some daring spying and delaying operations on the part of Zhou Yu’s wife and sister, more brilliant tactics from Zhuge Liang, and some heroic battling from Zhou Yu, the Southland forces rout Cao Cao’s forces decisively. Cao Cao is captured, but is set free and told to return to his homeland. Zhuge Liang and Zhou Yu bid farewell and mutually agree that war has only destructive consequences. Narrative Outcome: the brilliant and civilized underdogs, Zhou Yu and Zhuge Liang, are victorious, and the threat of Cao Cao is overcome.
With a number of antiwar verbal statements sprinkled across the film, Red Cliff has pretensions of being an antiwar film. Zhuge Liang and Zhou Yu are shown at the end to be good friends and dedicated to peaceful ways, which is a major departure from the original novel: in Romance of the Three Kingdom Zhou Yu is jealous of Zhuge Liang and tries several times to have him assassinated.

But such antiwar sentiments embedded in Woo’s altered narrative are dramatically undercut by the extensive battle scenes involving utterly unrealistic Hong Kong Wuxia wire-work (aka "wire fu") action cinematography. This may appeal to the video-game audience, but it is essentially a celebration of fantastical violence for the vicarious thrill-seekers. It is also difficult to follow, at least for me, the ebb and flow of the fortunes of the battles, given the complexity of the tactical movements and the number of semi-important characters who are being followed. I consider this confusion to be a weakness of the film, but it could be argued by some that such confusion is an effective presentation of the “fog of war” and represents an intended effect. I doubt it. It is true that the great Hungarian antiwar film, The Red and the White (Csillagosok, Katonák, 1967) by Miklós Jancsó delivers its antiwar message by presenting a relentlessly confusing and dizzying series of skirmishes that renders war meaningless. But those skirmishes are dismayingly real and horrific – they are not thrilling and not meant to be. In Red Cliff, though, most of the battle scenes, bloody as they are, are arranged to show the inhuman swordsmanship skills of people like Zhou Yu, and this makes a mockery of any antiwar message intentions.

Ultimately these bloody battle scenes go on much too long. Despite the effort of cutting the four-hour film down to two-and-a-half hours, the film is still too long, because of the repetitive fight scenes. It probably would have been better for Woo to cut down these fight scenes and preserve other scenes that are known to have been cut, such as the tiger-hunt sequence.

But despite the outlandishness and unreality of the fight-sequence production values, there are some evident virtues in Red Cliff. Takeshi Kaneshiro gives a compelling performance as the crafty Zhuge Liang. Fengyi Zhang makes the character of Cao Cao richer and more complex than one might have expected, given the usual villainous depiction of that character. But most memorable of all are the spectacular crane shots. These include the overviews of Red Cliff, Cao Cao’s naval flotilla on the Yangtze, the tortoise-shell tactic battle (Act 2, “The First Southland Attack on Cao Cao”), and the great fire battle. But there is one breathtaking tracking shot among these that is worth the price of admission all on its own: Zhuge Liang releases a carrier pigeon, and it is tracked all the way as it crosses the river and flies over Cao Cao’s fleet on the way to spy Sun Shangxiang.

In the end we have to say that the epic scale of Red Cliff is at times riveting, but the overblown wire-fu sword-slashing diminishes the experience.