RED CLIFF (2009)
John Woo's Red Cliff was originally released in two feature-length parts in Asia, but comes to the west as one film. Although this new version loses about half the combined material, in its current form it is a triumph of epic filmmaking, rivaling the scale and scope of work by directors David Lean and Akira Kurosawa as it tells the story of the Battle of Red Cliffs which contributed to the end of the Han Dynasty.
In the year 208, after persuading young Emperor Xian, Prime Minister Cao Cao (Fengyi Zhang) takes the massive Imperial military to conquer the lands of southern warlords Liu Bei (Yong You) and Sun Quan (Chen Chang). While Liu Bei has great warriors in his service, they are no match for the overwhelming numbers of Imperial forces and are forced to retreat to protect the civilians.
Liu Bei's chief advisor, Zhuge Liang (Takeshi Kaneshiro) meets with Sun Quan in the hopes of creating an alliance. Zhuge Linag also speaks with Sun Quan's general Zhou Yu (Tony Leung Chiu Wai) because if he can be persuaded, Sun Quan will surely agree. The two sides come together and combine forces against Cao Cao.
While the film is filled with spectacular set pieces of warfare, from catapults to hand-to-hand combat, what's most compelling is the chess-like battle of wits between Cao Cao and the combined minds of Zhuge Linag, and Zhou Yu. They are intelligent men who make the most out of their resources, even in death. When a number of his soldiers die from typhoid, Cao Cao orders their carcasses onto boats and sends them across the river into his enemies' camp, spreading the disease.
However, not calculated into anyone's plans is Zhou You's wife, Xiao Qiao (Chiling Lin). As both sides prepare immense attacks, she becomes an unknown variable in the proceedings by sneaking over to meet with Cao Cao, who is a childhood acquaintance. She puts herself in great peril to ask that he yield his mission and stop the bloodshed.
Red Cliff marks John Woo's return to Chinese cinema since 1992 and it is vastly superior to his Hollywood output. He and his crews have done great work, from the stunt teams to the special effects, in creating impressive visuals for this saga. Yet, it's the screenplay that is the film's greatest strength because the characters are all believable in their actions and motivations. This needs to be seen on a big screen to fully appreciate its grandeur and to encourage more films in this vein.