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IN SHORT: A classic of Chinese history yields an overwhelming spectacle of war and romance. [Rated R for sequences of epic warfare. 148 minutes]
We stopped reviewing subtitled films a number of years ago for the very simple reason that site demographics indicated that our readers had virtually no interest in foreign language films. THe only exception? Martial arts action flicks, which by definition really don't need much in the way of dialog. Set up the fight. Sit back. Set up the next fight. Pretty simple. And in the years that we limited our self, only two or three names stuck to our brain. Two have directing credits on Red Cliff, Corey Yuen directed several astounding battle sequences; some man on man, some army of thousands versus same. John Woo, who co-wrote the story is as major a name in Chinese cinema as George Lucas is here. Woo's films of late have drawn bigger box office numbers than Star Wars and, yadda yadda Asian language preferred and all that baffle, they all feature eye popping fight sequences.
For Red Cliff, Woo set out to make a Chinese equivalent to Titanic, wooing the top film making talent from four Asian nations both behind and in front of the camera. Those who know the genre have probably already got their hands on bootleg copies of the film, in Chinese, with running times up to 5 hours in length. Knowing that no Western audience is going to sit through five hours of subtitles, Woo edited his epic down to two and a half and, honestly, it feels nothing like said run time. Some battle sequences tend to run long but that's a common problem with action films. Either you can sit or you want more dramatic substance. Woo's Red Cliff attempts to deliver all that and more and nearly succeeds with perfection. We didn't have problems with subtitle reading but given the length and complexity of the film story, we wish that weren't the case.
Red Cliff is a story of political intrigue and romance across the territories of the Kingdoms of various Chinese Warlords back around 208 A.D. The Emperor rules over all, though he is based in and takes most of his power from t he territories in the North. As Red Cliff begins, the Emperor's right hand warlord, Cao Cao (Zhang Fengyi), has conquered all the territories save three in the Southlands. Those in the South are all pacifists and have been left alone in the past. Cao cao, the self-appointed Prime Minister wants the remaining three under his control as, it is rumored, his ultimate goal is to depose his boss. Lying to the Emperor (Zhang Fengyi) about the true nature of the so-called pacifists, Cao Cao is given leave to take the Chinese armies and subdue the Southland.
First to fall beneath the might of an army of a million men is the Kingdom of Xu, whose leader Liu Bei (You Yong) is a new father who would rather be playing with wife and baby than battle an army. Xu falls quickly, but not before sending a messenger, Zhuge Liang (Takeshi Kaneshiro) to the Kingdom of East Wu with warnings and requests for aid. East Wu has not seen war in decades. All the advisors to the ruler advise against war but, ultimately, it is Viceroy Zhou Yu (Tony Leung) who will make the final decision for his leader.
While Cao Cao spouts words of Unity and One China, his motives are more suspect. Yes, he wants to usurp the Emperor and rule all of a United China. More important, once upon a time Cao Cao caught sight of a woman, Xiao Qiao (Chiling Lin) the most beautiful in China, who is now Zhou Yu's wife. A face that could launch two thousand ships -- and if this is all starting to sound like Troy, Woo points out that this true Chinese epic is about the closest thing Chinese culture and history has to Troy.
If we've made the film sound about as interesting as cardboard, we apologize. To put it gently:
Red Cliff kicks @ss. Your first view will be spent reading subtitles or dropping a jaw at the battle scenes. Your second view, if you take it, will be spent the other way around. Only one or two cheap model shots get in the way of absolute total enjoyment. Two and a half hours in the dark pass as if only ninety.
On average, a first run movie ticket will run you Ten Bucks. Were Cranky able to set his own price to Red Cliff, he would have paid . . .
We almost hate to write it but there is so much to Red Cliff that we spent too much time reading t he subtitles. It is the first foreign language film we've seen in a long time that could have worked even better with some expert dubbing. You are not going to see me write that a lot!
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