Setting: Ancient China
Rating: 4 stars
Asian cinema is not just about low budget kung fu movies anymore. The two-part $80 million production of Red Cliff directed by John Woo has raised the bar as high as a dragon can fly. Inspired by the epic labyrinth of Chinese history, the Red Cliff saga gives movie lovers an exciting and historically detailed adventure full of action and top notch performances.
Starring Zhang Fengyi, Takeshi Kaneshiro, and Tony Leung among many other fine actors, Red Cliff Part 1 begins with Prime Minister Cao Cao’s (Zhang Fengyi) plot to absorb the power of his emperor, leader of the Eastern Han Dynasty. Granted authority to subdue rogue warlords, Cao Cao makes war on the idealistic Liu Bei who is rebellious because Cao Cao is subverting the true authority of the emperor. Liu Bei is served by many elite warriors who follow him because he is the better man and more deserving of their magnificent prowess in battle. The principle hero of the story is Liu Bei’s master strategist Zhuge Liang (Takeshi Kaneshiro). It is Zhuge’s challenge to avoid total destruction by the superior imperial forces led by Cao Cao.
Liu Bei soon suffers a bad defeat by Cao Cao’s imperial army, and he must flee with as many of his civilians as he can save. Liu Bei’s goodness is revealed by his devotion to protecting the people. He declares that if he cannot protect them then he has no right to rule them. Forced to flee, Liu Bei accepts Zhuge’s idea that they must seek an alliance with the Eastern Wu Kingdom, led by Sun Quan who is also targeted by Cao Cao.
Sun Quan, however, proves reluctant to ally with Liu Bei because of political pressure to preserve the peace. In peace the people prosper whereas they suffer in war. Sun Quan is tempted to surrender to Cao Cao and expose Liu Bei to destruction. Persisting in his mission, Zhuge seeks to convince the Grand Viceroy Zhou Yu, who is Sun Quan’s greatest general. Zhou Yu is receptive to the alliance. He is also a master strategist and is attracted to the intellectual challenge of fighting off the mighty army of the Eastern Han Dynasty.
As the story advances it very much revolves around the emerging relationship between the two master strategists as they work together to survive the onslaught of Cao Cao. Many other important subplots develop as well to enrich the film.
The only major criticism I have of Red Cliff Part 1 is the ridiculous fight scene near the beginning in which a general is trying to save Liu Bei’s wife and baby. I realize the goal was to create drama, but the general fighting with spears and swords while carrying the infant simply offended all sensibility. He would have shaken the baby to death during his hectic battle, and why the mother threw herself in a well I will never fathom. This silly baby-saving scene cost the film a star in my review, but I want to emphasize that everything else about the movie was masterful, thought-provoking, and very entertaining.
Red Cliff Part 1 splendidly marries military action and hand-to-hand combat with a compelling script driven by politics, strategy, and ancient Chinese culture. Stunning special effects portray the massive armies of ancient China and its urban and rural landscapes. The translation into the English subtitles is thoroughly engaging. This is NOT a boring foreign film. Red Cliff Part 1 is by far some of the best entertainment produced recently by film makers of any country. At a length of two and half hours, Part 1 never dragged and left me entirely eager to watch Part 2, which I did the very next night.