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Rated 3.04 stars
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ReelTalk Movie Reviews
A Tale of Three Kingdoms
by Jeffrey Chen

This review of Red Cliff is for the original two-parter that was released in Asia; an edited single-film version is scheduled for release in the U.S. on Nov. 20, 2009.  I believe my opinion will not significantly change upon viewing the edited version.

The Three Kingdoms period in China, a warring period occurring mostly in the 3rd century, is one of the country's most famous and well-sung times. The rougly 100-year span of events and the figures who forged them have been made legendary, their stories refined by generations of fragmented storytelling until one author, Luo Guanzhong, in the 14th century, compiled the tales into one of the great books of Chinese literature, Romance of the Three Kingdoms. Though official documents exist to record the history of those times, most Chinese people know the events as they have been described in the book, which includes some fictional embellishments and definitely takes sides in the wars, casting one kingdom as noble and another as treacherous. But the grand flow of the work, with its colorful depictions of characters and scrutinous details of politics and military strategy, earns it its captivating status, putting it on par with a work such as Homer's Iliad, another colorfully sung epic mythologizing a historical war, with similar cultural significance and resonance.

The fame and appeal of the stories are time-tested and far-reaching, for not only are they famous in China, they are also well-known in other Asian countries, such as Japan and Korea. Lately, mostly thanks to video games, appreciation for the Three Kingdoms has even reached a new Western generation in the U.S. With growing popularity, it is timely that not one but two movies based on the subject have been released in Asia in 2008. Because of the sheer breadth of material within the history and the novel, the story has been previously and fairly recently filmed as a mini-series (both live-action and animated). The movies instead have each chosen to focus on one particular aspect of the story -- Red Cliff covers the most famous battle of the time, the Battle of Red Cliffs, while Three Kingdoms: Resurrection of the Dragon chooses to focus on one character, Zhao Yun (aka Zhao Zilong).

Red Cliff had its native release timed to the opening of the Beijing Olympic Games, as part of the nation's cultural celebration.  For this production, one of Hong Kong's most well-known directors took the helm -- action master John Woo, who, previous to this, has spent the last decade-plus languishing in the USA, making films that never quite lived up to his Hong Kong heyday, when he often employed Chow Yun-Fat in his bullet ballets. Making this epic in China has given him back a big spotlight, putting together not only a huge movie (it's a two-parter -- the second movie was released in early 2009; a majorly edited version was later put together for Western releases) with major stars (including Tony Leung Chiu-Wai, Takeshi Kaneshiro, Chang Chen, and Zhao Wei aka "Vicki" Zhao), but also basing it on the most famous story of the Three Kingdoms lore.

However, "basing it" meant following the guidelines of neither history nor literature (despite interviews where Woo has claimed to base his film more on history). History is only very loosely followed in the sense that the films honor the largest of the historical events, and the characters -- their interactions, personalities, and motivations -- seem to be mostly revisionist fiction. I wouldn't mind this normally because a film should mainly function as a stand-alone work, regardless of story origins. But with Red Cliff, not only is history put to the side, but also one of the most well-known and beloved sets of stories in Chinese literature.

This makes Woo's approach daring, and he might've been able to get away with it, too, if his version of the story wasn't found wanting by comparison in almost every way. The story centers around a diplomatic relationship between Zhuge Liang aka Kongming (Takeshi Kaneshiro), ambassador and military strategist for the struggling warlord Liu Bei (You Yong), and Zhou Yu (Tony Leung Chiu-Wai), military commander for the southeast kingdom of Wu, ruled by Sun Quan (Chang Chen). In the novel, their relationship is depicted as antagonistic; in history, it's not terribly significant; but here, Woo has decided to use them to illustrate his favored theme of discovered brotherhood. The two work for different lords towards different ends, but find an unspoken kindred spirit between them as scholars, artists, and experts in war. Although I don't particularly care for this interpretation -- why mold a previously existing well-known story to a theme that was far from originally present in it? -- I must admit this might've been the most successful of Woo's introduced elements.

His other modifications reek of bad Hollywood-style storytelling -- possibly a side effect from his years in America? The main story is about two forces uniting against a vastly stronger common enemy led by the villainous Cao Cao (Zhang Fengyi). On the side of good, Woo inserts a plucky female character, Sun Shangxiang (Zhao Wei), perhaps understandably since the original history/novel didn't have a place in this story for strong female characters, but then gives her a ludicrous subplot involving her spying within the enemy lines and making a very unlikely friend of an enemy captain. Some artificial suspense is created when Liu Bei becomes discouraged and actually leaves the alliance -- the perfect set-up for a later predictable heroic return. But perhaps most offensively, Woo changes the method with which the forces of good are able to enact their ultimate plan -- a very famous secret attack -- against Cao Cao's fleet. Nevermind that both history and the novel actually agree on the events here; Woo even goes so far as to have the general historically involved in the tactic suggest it to commander Zhou Yu, and Zhou Yu rejects it for being unlikely to succeed!

Instead, Woo plays up an originally minor motivation of Cao Cao's -- that he is invading the land for the sake of a beautiful woman, Xiao Qiao (Lin Chi-ling), Zhou Yu's wife. This woman is then personally involved in the secret attack. The device used here is practically stolen from tales of the Trojan War, and it plays out a very used theme, wherein Cao Cao is suckered by the wiles of a woman. Eventually, this leads to a protracted climax that ends in an utterly ridiculous way, which I will not go into more detail about. Suffice it to say the entire last half of Part 2 comes across as particularly dissatisfying, thanks to Woo's setting aside actual time-tested drama for this silly invention and its ensuing action movie clichés.

The news isn't all bad for Red Cliff, though. From a technical standpoint, the two-part film is massive and quite impressive. It should be lauded for its production value alone, and the scenes of battle are exciting. The end of Part 1 contains a particularly entertaining section -- a battle that never really occurred but Woo inserted, naturally -- which vividly illustrates a soldier maze tactic known as the ba-gua, or Eight Arrays. Woo also has a lot of fun depicting the legendary warriors of Liu Bei -- his two sworn brothers Guan Yu (Ba Sen Zha Bu) and Zhang Fei (Zang Jinsheng), and his stalwart follower Zhao Zilong (Hu Jun). They are seen as practically superhuman in their swordfighting and hand-to-hand combat skills, which is as fun as you could imagine it to be.

Red Cliff in general is epic in the most traditional sense, but its overwhelming grandeur seems significantly handicapped by its screenplay conventions. Even if it didn't have history and the novel as comparisons, I would find it deflated by the time it reaches its last act. That much of these conventions are created to give this version of the story a certain dramatic flow the original versions of the story were never lacking only makes the movies more disappointing. I feel that Woo had the chance of a lifetime here -- all the budget he could ever ask for to film one of the greatest Chinese stories -- and blew it by tinkering with it so much that not only is it no longer the story many of us know and love, it's also a version that can't even be considered on par; as it is, it's Woo's usual theme of spiritual brotherhood stretched and applied to a tale that doesn't jive with it. Although Woo's filmmaking mojo is still alive and well, it's lamentable that he had to mess with a classic.

(Released by Magnolia Pictures and rated "R" for sequences of epic warfare.)

ADDENDUM: I have viewed the single-film version as of Feb. 19, 2010.  For those interested, the primary difference between the full two-film version and the edited single-film version is the elimination of mostly character development scenes and extraneous subplots in favor of retaining the big set pieces, which include the three major battles (The Battle of Changban at the start of the movie; the fictional battle featuring the ba-gua; and the Battle of Red Cliffs at the end of the film) and the humorous story from the novel about Kongming obtaining arrows. Less time is spent featuring Kongming and Zhou Yu familiarizing themselves with one another; the deeper motivations of Sun Quan and Liu Bei are left out; and (thankfully) the subplot about Sun Shangxiang befriending an enemy captain is gone. Instead, heavier focus is (sadly) placed on the invented part Xiao Qiao plays in the story. As a result, the single-film version feels more plot-driven and action-driven, less character-driven, inevitably feeling more shallow. It's rather telling that roughly only one hour of Part 1 makes it in, while about 90 minutes of Part 2 is used -- I slightly prefer Part 1, as Part 2 eventually devolves towards its ridiculous ending. Alas, that ending must remain and ultimately leave the final bad taste after viewing either version.

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