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December 2009

Red Cliff on DVD

cast: Tony Leung, Takeshi Kaneshiro, Fengyi Zhang, Chen Chang, and Wei Zhao

director: John Woo

275 minutes (15) 2008-9
widescreen ratio 2.35:1
EIV DVD Region 2 retail

RATING: 9/10
review by Tony Lee

Red Cliff on blu-ray

Red Cliff - special edition

In recent years, we have been really spoilt for choice with so many Asian big films, made by top filmmakers either at the peak of their creativity or just awarded super-sized budgets so that anything they can imagine may be realised on screen. Strong characters, great spectacle, and fantastic action are promised by the historical epic Red Cliff (a saga originally in two parts, Chi bi, and its sequel Chi bi xia: Jue zhan tian xia). John Woo is back, and he's right at the forefront of eastern cinema again!

During the Han dynasty in second century China, a dishonest Prime Minister, Cao Cao (Fengyi Zhang, The Emperor And The Assassin, 1998), mobilises the imperial army to hunt down rebels in the southlands. Troops mass on dusty plains. Refugees flee attacks, while fierce martial arts displays erupt between the heroes and villains' soldiers. Here's where director John Woo indulgently replays that baby-in-danger sequence from Hard Boiled (aka: Lat sau san taam, 1992), as one gallant general's desperate rescue of a royal heir leaves him alone, surrounded by opponents, and so he wraps the infant boy in a bundle slung across his mighty shoulders and launches himself into the thick of blood 'n' guts battle.

Although the drama has stately court rituals with all formalities observed, its actors fill roles that are defined not by talky scenes but by their decisive actions - whether noble or wicked - in the middle of vicious war zones, where infamy confronts virtue to determine the fates of middle kingdoms. Yet, even in relentless preparations for on-going warfare before the finale's naval encounter, there are welcome pauses for breath. A great leader finds time to 're-tune' a boy's wooden flute. The emissary to a fort attends the breech birth of a pony ("Promise you won't make him a warhorse," pleads the lord's wife), and there's a music interlude that's a Chinese equivalent of 'duelling banjos', while the emperor's army enjoys a football match. But it's not all fun and games. A poor messenger is beheaded. The baddie laughs evilly. He wants to 'cleanse' the south of all these irrepressible, sometimes ethnic, 'warlords'. Yeah? Well, good luck with that, matey...

Montage is fused with expressionism for artistic purpose and beguiling affect, and if you thought Troy had spectacular visuals, Red Cliff is more impressive, dazzling with the imaginative sweep of strategic formations that detail hostile ingenuity, or tactical vigour. We see infantry use mirrored shields to blind a cavalry charge. Fog rolls into a bay packed with an enemy fleet, captained by river pirates, because the northerners lack any naval expertise. 'Scarecrow' barges are cunningly deployed to collect the 'gift' of 100,000 arrows from imperial archers in a scheme to re-supply the besieged fort with fresh ammo. A typhoid outbreak prompts 'biological warfare' as diseased corpses deliver the plague which breaks the rebels' alliance of honour.

The commitment of a hesitant champion is decided by a tiger hunt. There's comic-relief with the tomboy princess, yet she spearheads the rout of a sneak attack; then becomes a spy, working behind enemy lines to create a map of the sprawling camp. Wrongly fearing a betrayal, the overanxious Prime Minister is tricked into foolishly executing his own admirals. Who will command his vast fleet now? The changeable weather plays a vital part in military plans. Predicting wind speed or direction may win the day. Catapults rain down fire, burning ships are launched against harbour defences, and one warrior wields a whip of flame. The suicide bomber knocks over walls of the stronghold with a bundle of primitive 'grenades'.

There's just so much stunning imagery (the flying lanterns from the funeral pyres, the symbolic burnt flags that signal a lack of any victory), and so many antigravity balletic stunts, and heart-stopping moments of drama or tragedy. The grand finale has a protracted confrontation that really does take your breath away; no easy feat in the 21st century, where cinematic miracles are commonplace.

Hong Kong superstar Tony Leung (Infernal Affairs, and Wong Kar-wai's 2046) is magnificent as Zhou Yu. Taiwanese actor Takeshi Kaneshiro (Returner, House Of Flying Daggers) plays Zhuge Liang with gravitas and charm. Red Cliff is a wholly astonishing triumph of world cinema, as we might expect from the most expensive Chinese film yet produced. It balances martial thrills and romanticised adventure, with spirited good humour to offset various chaotic tragedies.

This is not the hacked-up international cut of two films crammed into one, it's the maximum epic and it's excellent. Faults are trivial: a few seconds missing from the UK release (BBFC cuts for 'animal cruelty' of tripwires used to makes horses fall or somersault and land on their necks), and the DVD presentation loses a point for its tiny subtitles, which look fine on my 40-inch HD set but are likely to be unreadable on small-to-average TV screens.

DVD extras: behind-the-scenes footage, a trailer, plus a John Woo interview that is terrible because of poor video sound quality and the director's unintelligible way of speaking English. (Perhaps he was simply exhausted? Well, after overseeing this, a likely choice for my film of the year, Mr Woo has every right to look a bit worn out.)

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