The Battle of Red Cliff

Red CliffI have a soft heart for East Asian epic films. John Woo’s two-part Red Cliff, based on the historical battle of Red Cliff, is one of the best I’ve seen so far. A million thanks to my cinemaphile friend Dada* for lending me a copy of the film’s first part last week. I immediately begun looking for Red Cliff’s second part after seeing the first and probably saw the both at least five times already since the weekend.

I don’t know much about the film’s background but from what I can gather, it is centered on the events leading to and the actual battle of Red Cliff itself, the battle that cemented the division of China for another hundred years after four centuries of relative tranquility under the Han Dynasty.

An online film review site sums up Red Cliff’s basic plot:

In 208 BCE, in the final days of the Han Dynasty, shrewd Prime Minister Cao Cao convinced the fickle Emperor Han the only way to unite all of China was to declare war on the kingdoms of Xu in the west and East Wu in the south. Thus began a military campaign of unprecedented scale, led by the Prime Minister, himself. Left with no other hope for survival, the kingdoms of Xu and East Wu formed an unlikely alliance. Numerous battles of strength and wit ensued, both on land and on water, eventually culminating in Red Cliff (Chi bi). During the battle, two thousand ships were burned, and the course of Chinese history was changed forever.

This era of internecine warfare, popularly known as the Three Kingdoms period, is one of the most fascinating and most chronicled periods in Chinese history. It is the subject of one of the four greatest classic novels of ancient China: the Romance of Three Kingdoms, which is for East Asia what King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Tables or Odyssey is for the West. Red Cliff is based on both the historical and fictional accounts of the Romances. Many have said that the movie practically does what the three-part Lord Of The Rings film did for Tolkien’s book original.

I haven’t read either the Romance or the historical chronicles of the Three Kingdoms periods but I heard they’re very long, complex, and boasts of hundreds of characters. It’s amazing how the film condenses an important part of that narrative into four hours without losing its complexity. Most scenes, especially the fighting, as well as the cast and acting, are excellent. Red Cliff is way better than last year’s Resurrection of the Dragon.

Those looking for fantastic flying sword fights would be disappointed. But the battle scenes are just as artistic and are filled with all the symbolism typical of oriental epics in spite of the laudable effort to make them more historical and realistic.

* Being an ignorant person as far as films are concerned (among many other things), I mostly depend on him to know which are good and which are not.

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