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Red Cliff

(This film is not available in the U.S., and you can probably only get it from some ditches.)

This film is of the scale of The Lord of the Rings. The biggest film ever made in China, with an $80 million budget.

Historical epic directed by John Woo, set in Han Dynasty China (about 208 A.D.), based on a true battle between Imperial forces under the sway of an evil Prime Minister, and the armies of two governors who remained loyal to the Emperor. In the film version, the Imperial forces numbered 800,000 and the loyalists, only 50,000 (historical estimates 240,000 vs 50,000.)

This makes for some MASSIVE battle scenes - with thousands and thousands of extras. Lots of them on horseback. Thousands of ships. And the battle sequences are 10-15 minutes long each. While this is NOT a wuxia film, there are some terrific hand-to-hand martial arts fights - spear, mainly. The fights are fucking great.

The first third of this 2-hour movie is set-up, and the establishment of main characters: Cao Cao, the evil PM (Zhang Fengyi) - and the forces of good - Viceroy Zhou Yu (Tony Leung Chiu-Wai), the tactician and ambassador Zhuge Liang (Takeshi Kaneshiro), the warrior princess Sun Shangxiang (Zhao Wei), the two loyalist governors, and three strong generals.

The first loyalist governor is defeated by Cao Cao's forces (battle) and retreats toward Red Cliff, on the bank of the Yangtse, where the second loyalist governor sits secure in his fortress with 35,000 troops led by Viceroy Zhou. Zhuge is sent as an ambassador to Zhao and the two strike up a friendship. The two governors agree to join forces.

Cao Cao splits his forces into two - one attacking Red Cliff by land, mainly cavalry, and one by sea - a feint. Zhuge and Zhou predict this and use an "outmoded" infantry tactic defeat Cao Cao's cavalry. (battle)

But the bulk of Cao Cao's forces are still intact and his warships are massing across the Yangtse from Red Cliff, bolstered by two naval squadrons who have defected to Prime Minister. They vastly outnumber the loyalist forces. Zhuge reluctantly sends Princess Sun and her women warriors across the river to spy on and sabotage Cao Cao's forces.

To be concluded in Part 2. I can't wait.

I've been waiting for 2 years to see this film, and it's better than I imagined. Woo hasn't made a movie in China since 1993 and hasn't done a period piece since 1979. The crap he's done in Hollywood - big budget actioners, mainly - are not very good. I think Hollywood won't let him do the kind of intense hyper-kinetic hyperviolence that he does so well. Like they make him turn everything down two notches.

Not on this film. The battle sequences are fast and super violent.

The set-up is very slow, but it gives Woo time to develop the characters and the major theme that he's used since Bullet in the Head - the friendship and loyalty between Zhuge and Zhou

Two of the loyalist generals look like those warrior gods you see in Chinese shrines. Princess Sun must prove herself to the male leaders of the army. Cao Cao is insane with power. Mythic warriors in a mythic struggle.

Tony Leung is always great, but the film is definitely Takeshi Kaneshiro's. He plays a warrior-scholar; skilled in tactics, but not in battle; unsure of his own bravery - a thoughtful, careful man. A different kind of hero. Zhang Fengyi is an incredible bad guy. Zhao Wei is an excellent warrior princess - a joy to watch.

Part 1 was released theatrically last July and Part 2 in January of this year. Not one hint of a U.S. release, not even the rumored 3-hour condensation of the two films to DVD. The copy I have is an "all regions" disc from China. There is a bad boot of it transferred from a Chinese television broadcast circulating.

If any of you ditch-diggers dig anything out of the 2009 ditches, GET THIS ONE. If you have a good independent video store that occasionally dabbles in not-strictly-legal imports, get them to get it. Prowl you local Chinatown like I do.

This is a great film. Hollywood hasn't been able to do films on this scale since the 60s.

– Review by S.O.D.D.I