First: a little background. Romance of the Three Kingdoms is the Chinese national epic, an 800,000-word historical saga that has been well-entrenched in the Asian mindset since its creation in the 14th century. To a literate Chinese person, a section like the Battle of the Red Cliffs is as familiar a cultural touchstone as the Death Star Trench Run would be to us semiliterate Westerners.
Hence, it’s not too surprising to find that expat Chinese director John Woo has been eager for a shot at the story for decades. With the enthusiasm of a kid drunk on tales of knights in shining armor and the skill of an accomplished international filmmaker, Woo gives RotTK his cinematic best in Red Cliff.
While the vast majority of Americans are unfamiliar with Romance of the Three Kingdoms, we aren’t totally out of the loop. Without even knowing it, some of us may have been introduced to the story thanks to the wildly popular Dynasty Warriors series of video games, which draws on Romance of the Three Kingdoms for its characters, storylines and monumental battle settings. That tactical action franchise allows players to slash, bash and otherwise reap their way through thousands of enemies in the guise of assorted ancient Chinese warriors. While that doesn’t sound like the most accurate introduction to Chinese history, curious video game players who wander into the theater to catch John Woo’s big-budget cinematic take on Red Cliff may be surprised at how well 3rd century martial arts line up with button-mashing video game strategy.
It’s somewhere around 200 A.D. in feudal China, and a nasty general by the name of Cao Cao (Zhang Fengyi) is trying to browbeat the Han emperor into crushing the last rebellious kingdoms and uniting the empire once and for all. Easier said than done, as these tiny upstarts are in the process of forming a crucial alliance. Among the power players are brilliant military advisor Zhuge Liang (Japanese superstar Takeshi Kaneshiro from House of Flying Daggers), veteran warrior Zhou Yu (Woo regular Tony Leung) and breakaway province leader Sun Quan (Chen Chang from Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon).
Honestly, it’s not easy keeping track of all the generals, warlords, warriors, scholars, military advisors and chancellors running around brandishing weapons and planning battles here. All you really need to know, though, is how badass they are. Once you hit a battle scene (the unforgettable “turtle formation” sequence, for example), you’ll understand what sort of film this is. Out of nowhere, a single warrior will burst from the ranks, mowing down enemies by the hundreds with a single sweep of his spear. Arrows sticking out of him like porcupine quills, this superhero will fight on until he’s finally trampled by 50 men on horseback. This is epic myth-making at its manly best. It’s as if Hercules, King Arthur, John Wayne, Akira Kurosawa and Gerard Butler from 300 had a baby, gave him a polearm and sent him off to war.
While chopping a film in half would seem to sacrifice an awful lot of storytelling, the original Red Cliff did have a rather overwhelming amount of conflict. There’s still more than enough on display—right on up to the climactic naval skirmish that gives the film its name. The camera soars to the horizon, arrows blacken the sky, ships burn as far as the eye can see. It’s a monumental visual stunner. Woo deserves some sort of medal for bringing art back into the art of war.
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