Coming from acclaimed director John Woo, Red Cliff is an epic historical war film based on the famous Battle of Red Cliffs, a decisive naval battle in the winter of 208–9CE at the end of the Han dynasty. Made on a massive scale, Red Cliff was originally released in two parts running at over four hours in total. Outside Asia, a cut-down, single 148-minute version was released in 2009.
Hong Kong superstar actor and singer Tony Leung Chiu-wai stars as the legendary General and hero “Zhou Yu”. Beginning his successful acting career on television, he transitioned to film receiving acclaim early on for his roles in “A City of Sadness”, and the John Woo-directed classic “Hard Boiled”.
Notable films in his career include “Butterfly and Sword”, “Ashes of Time”, “Chungking Express”, “In the Mood for Love”, “Tokyo Raiders”, “Infernal Affairs”, “Hero”, and “The Grandmaster”. He was recently cast as “Mandarin” in the forthcoming Marvel martial arts blockbuster “Shang Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings”.
Occasionally billed as “the Asian Johnny Depp”, Takeshi Kaneshiro stars as “Zhuge Liang”, a brilliant military strategist. Kaneshiro has appeared in the box office hits “House of Flying Daggers“, “The Warlords” and “Dragon / Wu Xia“. Acclaimed Chinese film and television actor Zhang Fengyi stars as the Northern warlord who manipulates his way to the position of Prime Minister, “Cao Cao”. Zhang is best known for his role as Duan Xiaolou in “Farewell My Concubine” and Jing Ke in “The Emperor and the Assassin”.
The popular Taiwanese actor and singer Chang Chen stars as “Sun Quan”, a young warlord. Chen will be familiar to martial arts movie fans as “Luo Xiahao / Dark Cloud”, the bandit in “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”. He has also had notable appearances in the “Brotherhood of Blades” movies, “The Grandmaster”, and “The Assassin”. He will next be seen in director Denis Villeneuve’s sci-fi blockbuster “Dune”. Zhao Wei, also known as Vicky Zhao or Vicki Zhao, is a Chinese actress, businesswoman, film director, producer and pop singer, who plays “Sun Shangxiang”, younger sister of Sun Quan. Zhao has featured to great acclaim in the movies “Shaolin Soccer”, “Warriors of Heaven and Earth”, “Painted Skin”, “Mulan” (2009), “14 Blades” and “Three”. Best known for his roles in “Assembly”, “Bodyguards and Assassins“, and “Shadow”, Hu Jun plays “Zhao Zilong”, a fearless General.
A popular Chinese actor, mostly known for his roles as policemen or military officers in many films and television series, You Yong plays the famous historical leader “Liu Bei”. Taiwanese model, actress, singer and television host Lin Chi-ling is “Xiao Qiao”, Zhou Yu’s wife and the obsession of Cao Cao. Having made her film début in “Red Cliff”, she went on to star alongside Jay Chou in the action-adventure film “The Treasure Hunter”, and has appeared in “Monk Comes Down a Mountain” and “The Monkey King 3”.
Japanese actor Shidō Nakamura is the courageous military leader “Gan Ning”. Nakamura will be most familiar to martial arts fans as “Anno Tanaka”, the Japanese fighter in Jet Li’s “Fearless”. Mongolian actor Batdorj-in Baasanjab plays the legendary and popular Chinese hero “Guan Yu”. Also known by the stage name Ba Sen, he is best known for playing another famous historical character, Genghis Khan, in various film and TV adaptations. Popular Chinese television actor Zang Jinsheng appears as the wild-haired and ferocious warrior “Zhang Fei”, Guan Yu’s brother-in-arms.
Explosive Battle Clip
Power hungry Prime Minister-turned-General Cao Cao seeks permission from the Han dynasty Emperor to organise a southward-bound mission designed to crush the two troublesome warlords who stand in his way, Liu Bei and Sun Quan.
As the expedition gets underway, Cao Cao’s troops rain destruction on Liu Bei’s army, forcing him into retreat. Liu Bei’s military strategist Zhuge Liang knows that the rebels’ only hope for survival is to form an alliance with rival warlord Sun Quan, and reaches out to Sun Quan’s trusted advisor, war hero Zhou Yu.
Vastly outnumbered by Cao Cao’s brutal, fast-approaching army, the warlords band together to mount a heroic campaign unrivalled in history that changes the face of China forever.
Caught in a Trap!
You don’t have to wait long for the first bit of action, which takes the viewer right into the heart of a bloody battle at Xinye that has obviously been raging for some time.
Spears, Swords & Balletic Battles
Spears and swords are the order of the day and there are little director trademarks, such as his fondness for glossy slow motion, giving an almost balletic quality to the bloodshed. Hu Jun as Zhao Zilong is especially handy with a spear. The choreography isn’t too flashy, but there are some nice authentic spear techniques, that practitioners of this weapon will recognise.
This leads to our first taste of what this film does so well. With his side heavily outnumbered, Zhuge Liang needs to come up with a strategy that will allow the escape of thousands of refugees. He is familiar with Cao Cao’s tactics, and recruits the legendary General Guan Yu, famous for his skill with the halberd, to hold up Cao Cao’s forces.
Guandao to The Rescue…
We get to enjoy what would become known as the Guandao, named after the famous General himself, as he marauds his way through the enemy troops! Following the battle at Xinye, Liu Bei’s forces are outnumbered almost ten to one by Cao Cao’s army.
The wily Zhuge Liang uses his wisdom and cunning to persuade the southern lords to form an alliance against Cao Cao. He visits the acclaimed General Zhou Yu, who is encamped at Red Cliff, where we see hundreds of his troops practicing weapons drills and battle formations. Zhou Yu later trains the troops himself in hand-to-hand grappling and throwing.
A Remarkable Display of Strength & Fighting Skill
To swing the odds more in their favour, Zhou Yu and Zhuge Liang use clever strategies and traps to give them an advantage over Cao Cao’s formidable cavalry. With the enemy corralled by the “Bagua Formation”, Guan Yu, Zhang Fei and Gan Ning display their remarkable strength and fighting skills.
Gan Ning has a particularly entertaining sequence using a sword in each hand to dispatch any poor soul in reach of him. When Zhou Yu enters the fray we get a glimpse of why he is revered as such an inspirational leader. He fights with skill and protects his soldiers even at great risk to himself.
One-Shot Aerial Sequence, White Pigeon Trademark, and a Bout of Shaolin Soccer!
There is a truly stunning one-shot aerial sequence as the camera follows a white pigeon (what else? It is a John Woo film after all!) as it flies through the vast enemy armada to their equally impressive fortified encampment on the opposite shore. We see Cao Cao and his Generals watching and enjoying a game of “Cuju”, recognised as the earliest form of soccer. In this case, it is more like a game of Shaolin Soccer!
Zhou Yu (Tony Leung) Leads the Battle…
Although not all based on real military history, the battles frequently feature clever little tricks to overcome the enemy or disrupt the progress of the rebels. When a typhoid epidemic breaks out in his camp, Cao Cao knows that even dead soldiers can be useful in a fight, and Zhuge Liang comes up with an innovative way to restock the archer’s arrows. These are just a couple of examples of the many smart little ploys that permeate the film like an action-packed game of chess.
Tony Leung Impresses with Tai Chi-esque & Drunken Sword Routines
As Zhou Yu contemplates his next strategic move, he practices his sword form. Starting slowly and gracefully, almost like a Tai Chi routine, the pace of the cuts and postures increase in line with the accelerating tempo of the accompanying music, evolving into a blistering Jianshu (wushu sword) performance. Whilst Tony Leung is doubled for the more extravagant butterfly twists, he performs much of the form himself. Shortly after, he even does a little Drunken Sword!
Touch of Mulan…
There is a touch of the legend of Mulan as Sun Shangxiang masquerades as a male enemy soldier to spy on their camp. Zhao Wei plays the part brilliantly, equally adept at conveying drama, comedy and action when called on.
Epic Final Battle akin to Opening of “Saving Private Ryan”
The epic final battle commences with a spectacular pyrotechnic naval attack. It paves the way for a mass assault by the rebel infantry in a waterborne landing. It’s not unlike the opening scenes of “Saving Private Ryan”, with arrows replacing machine gun fire and trebuchets replacing heavy artillery.
As night turns to day, the opposing forces finally come face to face. The mostly weapons-based, close-quarters-battle is rarely flamboyant and yet is still slickly choreographed. It strikes a good balance between keeping it “real” and remaining entertaining to watch.
This was something of a comeback movie for John Woo in a couple of ways. He had been living and working in Hollywood for fifteen years or more, delivering fare such as “Hard Target”, “Broken Arrow”, “Face/Off”, “Mission: Impossible 2”, “Windtalkers” and “Paycheck”. Despite his first few films achieving fairly broad critical and financial success, the last couple did poorly.
Woo decided he wanted to return to his own cultural history by making a film in China, but take with him everything he had learned about movie making from working in Hollywood, and combine it with the unique skill set of Chinese filmmakers. The result was truly spectacular, in every sense of the word.
I first saw the abridged international version of “Red Cliff” when it was released and thoroughly enjoyed it. When the home release became available in the UK, I treated myself to the two-disc set featuring the longer, original Asian versions to see what I had missed. Although there isn’t a great deal of extra action, I thought it worked much better as a two-parter.
The first film does an excellent job establishing the characters and plot, allowing the second part to really focus on the cunning strategies and action of the main battle itself.
Whether you see the longer or shorter versions, in any shape or form this film, for me, is John Woo’s magnum opus. “Red Cliff” is a masterpiece on every level, from the cinematography, acting, and music, to the special effects and depiction of the battles, with the incredible set pieces on land and water.
Don’t get me wrong, films such as “The Killer”, “Hard Boiled” and “A Better Tomorrow”, are all top of the class in their particular genre. However, the sheer scale and success of the story telling in “Red Cliff” is an amazing achievement of cinema by Woo.
As a student of Chinese martial arts, I have always believed that knowng the history and culture behind the art is essential. Although “Red Cliff” is a fictional version of an important event in Chinese history, there are many layers that inform the viewer; the political machinations, military tactics, the Yin and Yang of the North versus the South, army versus navy, wits versus force, David versus Goliath, loyalty, betrayal, honour, sacrifice, chivalry, brotherhood, the making of good troops, the will of nature and fate.
That may sound heavy going, but this film’s key strength is that it is all played out with a lightness of touch, through clever spoken or visual metaphors, and plenty of witty humour. Whether you watch the 148-minute or 288-minute version, the pacing never sags, galloping along at an even tempo.
If you are after a “cool” John Woo action film with a sunglasses-wearing hero blasting gangsters away in his trench coat, or Nic Cage and John Travolta trying to out-crazy each other, this movie isn’t it. If you want a sumptuous spectacle of grand proportions, this is one of the most entertaining historical battle films ever made. A masterpiece!
Director John Woo Discusses the Making of Red Cliff
- “If we do not protect the civilians, then what is the meaning of this war?” – Liu Bei
- “We must fight even if we cannot win.” – Zhuge Liang
- “Surrender is not a matter of victory or defeat, but rather one of virtue.” – Zhuge Liang
- “They [Cao Cao’s army] have travelled over 100 miles very day. They are exhausted. As the saying goes, a worn spear cannot even penetrate thin cloth.” – Zhuge Liang
- “An army in high spirits can defeat an enemy ten times its size.” – Zhou Yu
- “Truth and illusion are often disguised as each other. Cao Cao likes to play this game, both with friends and foes.” – Liu Bei
- “Before they come over here, I will go over there, take a peek and stir up some trouble.” – Sun Shangxiang
- “Sometimes the simplest trick is the easiest way to lead someone to their death.” – Cao Cao
- “In eighteen years I have never lost a battle. If I fail to capture this little cliff, I shudder to think what historians will say.” – Cao Cao
- “If a man of learning does not understand brotherhood, is his learning useless?” – Guan Yu
- For the non-Asian releases, the film was shortened from 288 minutes to 148 minutes and was released in some countries under the title “Battle of Red Cliff”.
- An opening narration in English provides the historical background, whereas in the Asian release, a more brief description of the context of the political situation appears in scrolling form ten minutes into the film.
- Notable cuts include the background and motivations behind Zhuge Liang’s plan to obtain 100,000 arrows, including the threat to his life, and the early parts of Sun Shangxiang’s infiltration, where she befriended a northern soldier, Sun Shucai. The tiger-hunting scene was also cut from the non-Asian releases.
- The original two-part 288-minute English version was released as a two-disc set on DVD and Blu-ray in the United Kingdom on 5th October 2009, and in the United States and Canada on 23rd March 2010.
- Acclaimed action director, Corey Yuen was a 2nd Unit Director.
- The film makers received help from the Chinese Army who lent them approximately 1500 soldiers to play extras and build roads.
- During post-production, a 23-year-old stuntman was killed when fire broke out after a small boat rammed into a larger warship, while filming miniatures. The freak accident also left six others injured.