Sunday, 22 December 2013

Red Cliff: Part One (2008) - ★★★★½

Director: John Woo
Writers: John Woo, Khan Chan, Cheng Kuo, Heyu Sheng (screenplay), Guanzhong Luo (novel)
Stars: Tony Leung Chiu Wai, Takeshi Kaneshiro, Fengyi Zhang, Chen Chang, Wei Zhao, Shido Nakamura, Chiling Lin

Red Cliff is one of the most spectacular, breathtaking, epic films of all time. Every time I see this film, it leaves me in a state of awe. The cinematography is as beautiful as anything I've ever seen on film. The score by Taro Iwashiro is one of the most beautiful pieces of music I've ever heard... it sends chills up my spine. The talented all-star cast managed to make these legendary war-lords and ladies appear every bit as powerful as their legend says. Let me tell you, Red Cliff is two and a half hours of thrilling action, handled with amazing artistry and graceful film-craftsmanship. To me, this movie is every bit as entertaining and epic as The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. 

Set in China between 220-280AD, an ambitious and ruthless Prime-Minister named Cao Cao (Fengyi Zhang) has one goal in mind: to conquer and destroy all those that pose a threat to him ruling every kingdom throughout the lands. By manipulating the young and foolish emperor, he obtains permission to invade a kingdom led by Liu Bei (Yong You). After Bei's mighty kingdom falls, he must join forces with two other clans from the Southlands. One is led by Sun Quan (Chen Chang), ruler of the Wu people, whilst the other is led by the Viceroy Zhou Yu (Tony Leung). These three rulers, aided by a military strategist named Zhuge (Takeshi Kaneshiro), must prepare for a mighty battle at Red Cliff, where their army pales in comparison to the 800,000 men that Cao Cao commands.

The fact that this film was not nominated for an Academy Awards just goes to show how exclusive the Academy really is. Red Cliff shows off the very best of Chinese cinema, with outstanding displays of martial arts, poetic dialogue, expressive emotions, intricate choreography, and a real appreciation for the finer details. From costume design to set-production, from music to cinematography, from special-effects to the performances, every single technical aspect was absolute perfection. Red Cliff submersed me in an environment that I had never seen before, and took me on a thrilling and emotional journey. Some scenes were jaw-droppingly beautiful, while other scenes were jaw-droppingly brutal. I just adore the style and precision of director John Woo. This is undoubtedly one of the greatest war movies ever made. 

Tony Leung Chiu Wai, a man with a repertoire as good as any legendary actor I know of.

Chen Chang, one of my personal favourite actors.
One thing I've noticed about Chinese cinema is that their most notable films always star the same leading actors. In my opinion, Tony Leung is one of the greatest actors today. I've seen him play feminine and sensitive, I've seen him play loud and rambunctious, I've seen him play quiet and sullen, and I've seen him play strong and powerful. Here in Red Cliff, his screen presence just uplifts the film to soaring heights. Here he gives one of his most solid and memorable performances. It's great to see him reunite with Chen Chang, who played his very close friend in the film Happy Together (1997). Seeing them both unite and kick-ass in Red Cliff is one of the coolest things I've ever seen.

Takeshi Kaneshiro and Wei Zhao. He out-foxes everyone, and she just kicks ass!
Chiling Lin played the 'perfect' woman.
I'm a sucker for strong, independent female characters. That is why I adore movies like Kill Bill and female Disney villains like Maleficent and Ursula. The character of Shangxiang, played by Wei Shao, was a real shot in the arm for Red Cliff. It was awesome to see a woman sit on the war council, and play a key role in fighting Cao Cao. She was the polar opposite of the leading female, Xiao Qiao (Chiling Lin), who was soft-spoken, subservient, and very, very annoying. I just couldn't stand the overly long scenes that established how wonderful a person she is. We get it! She is perfect in every way! Now shut up and move onto the battle! Ugh.

Even though I enjoyed Red Cliff from start to finish, it did have minor annoyances. The melodrama truly suited most of the scenes, mainly because of the uplifting and momentous score by Iwashiro. However, at times it became overbearing and a little silly. While I freaking loved the battle scenes, I do feel that Woo lingered too long in many of the sequences. I think ten minutes of editing would have done wonders.

The amazing 'tortoise formation' used to destroy Cao Cao's cavalry.
I saved the best for last. The greatest part of Red Cliff, by far, was the outstanding performance of Fengyi Zhang. As the ruthless, villainous Cao Cao, Zhang seared the character into my memory forever. Whenever he was on-screen, he commanded total attention. It's not hard to see that he's a seasoned veteran of the film industry. The first film I ever saw him in was Farewell My Concubine, where he played a highly sympathetic and emotional man. Here, in Red Cliff, he plays one of my all time favourite villains. He's up there with Saruman, Darth Vader, and Amon Goeth (Schindler's List). His performance was the highlight of this near-perfect epic.

Red Cliff is one of most amazing films I've ever seen. Every complimentary adjective in the dictionary just doesn't do it justice. It is simply unforgettable. You should listen to the score by Taro Iwashiro. The video below is a piece from the soundtrack called 'Shadow of the Evanescence.' 

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