Red Cliff (note official website is in Japanese!) is an epic Chinese drama based on events described in the ancient Chinese historical text “Chronicle of the Three Kingdoms”. The story is very well known in Chinese literature in a romantised version ‘Romance of the Three Kingdoms’, which may partly explain the film adaptation’s phenomenal box office takings in China and Hong Kong. It’s the most expensive Asian-financed film to date and it shows.
In the final days of the Han Dynasty, the Prime Minister Cao Cao invades the land of Wu with his immense army and navy in an attempt to unite China for the Han Emperor and for his personal ambition and infatuation. He is held back by an alliance between the ruler of Wu, Sun Quan and the warlord Liu Bei, which culminates in the Battle of Red Cliff. Obviously the cause of the just and good prevails.
The film is clearly in the oeuvre of ‘beat-em-up’ action director John Woo. There are extended bloody battle scenes with thousands of cavalry, blood splatters frequently arc across the lens and there is lots of rapid-fire zoom-in zoom-out camera work. The action is laughably ridiculous at times (catching arrows in mid-air while galloping), there is an element of overacting and the characterisation is generally one-dimensional. However, what the film lacks in subtlety it makes up for sheer grandeur of a huge cast and the sweeping CGI work in the scenery of the Yangtze river and the battle scenes. This is the kind of film which can only be appreciated on a big screen. It’s the bigger than Ben Hur aspects of the film which are the most enjoyable and exciting aspects, rather than the contrived personal moments of the warriors, including many unnecessary lingering shots of Zhou Yu’s beautiful wife Xiao Qiao.