Action director John Woo (“Face/Off”) delivers an epic film of one of ancient China’s most famous battles with “Red Cliff,” a story so vast and complicated that he released it in two parts when it played to packed theaters all over Asia.
Edited to one 2 1/2 -hour movie for the West, it’s still a sprawling spectacle of war, political ambition, romance, sacrifice and treachery.
And if it’s overlong and so populated with characters as to be somewhat confusing (to Western viewers), well that’s history for you – never as neat and compact as we’d like.
In 208 A.D., China’s dominant northern Han empire is ruled, more or less, by Cao Cao (Fengyi Zhang), warlord and bullying adviser to the boyish emperor.
He decides that two “free” kingdoms to the south must be brought to heel. Those southern kingdoms – doomed if they stand alone – unite to fight the invaders from the north and keep the Hans from crossing the Yangtze River.
“Red Cliff” brilliantly gives huge battles a human scale as we watch martial maneuvers boil down to man-to-man, hand-to-hand combat. Meanwhile, Woo still finds time to stage the most explicit love scene ever in one of his movies.
“Red Cliff” is one of those movies that begs to be experienced more than simply deciphered. It is poetry in martial motion, a vivid re-creation of a place and time and a battle that shaped Chinese history for generations to come.
Flaws and all, you can’t watch a frame of it without feeling that it has been generations since Hollywood tackled anything on this scale.
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