Frame: Ancient China
Rating: 4 stars
Asian cinema is no longer just about low-budget kung fu movies. The two-part, $ 80 million production of Red Cliff directed by John Woo has raised the bar as high as a dragon can fly. Inspired by the epic labyrinth of Chinese history, the Red Cliff saga offers movie lovers a thrilling and historically detailed adventure packed with action and world-class performances.
Starring Zhang Fengyi, Takeshi Kaneshiro, and Tony Leung among many other fine actors, Red Cliff Part 1 begins with Prime Minister Cao Cao’s (Zhang Fengyi) plan to absorb power from his emperor, leader of the Eastern Han dynasty. With the authority granted to subdue the rebellious warlords, Cao Cao makes war on the idealistic Liu Bei, who is rebellious because Cao Cao is subverting the true authority of the emperor. Liu Bei is served by many elite warriors who follow him because he is the best man and most deserving of his magnificent prowess in battle. The main hero of the story is Liu Bei’s master strategist, Zhuge Liang (Takeshi Kaneshiro). Zhuge’s challenge is to avoid total destruction by the superior imperial forces led by Cao Cao.
Liu Bei soon suffers a severe defeat by Cao Cao’s imperial army, and must flee with as many civilians as he can save. Liu Bei’s kindness is revealed by his devotion to protecting people. He declares that if he cannot protect them, he has no right to rule them. Forced to flee, Liu Bei accepts Zhuge’s idea that they should seek an alliance with the Eastern Wu Kingdom, led by Sun Quan, who is also a target of Cao Cao.
Sun Quan, however, is reluctant to ally with Liu Bei due to political pressure to preserve the peace. In peace people prosper while they suffer in war. Sun Quan is tempted to surrender to Cao Cao and exposes Liu Bei to destruction. Persisting in his mission, Zhuge seeks to convince Grand Viceroy Zhou Yu, who is Sun Quan’s greatest general. Zhou Yu is receptive to the alliance. He is also a master strategist and is drawn to the intellectual challenge of fighting the powerful army of the Eastern Han dynasty.
As the story progresses, it largely revolves around the emerging relationship between the two master strategists as they work together to survive Cao Cao’s attack. Many other important subplots are also developed to enrich the film.
The only major criticism I have of Red Cliff Part 1 is the ridiculous fight scene near the beginning where a general is trying to save Liu Bei’s wife and baby. I realize the goal was to create drama, but the general fighting with spears and swords while holding the baby simply offended all sensibilities. It would have shaken the baby to death during their frenzied battle, and why the mother threw herself into a well I will never understand. This silly scene to save the baby cost the movie a star in my review, but I want to emphasize that everything else about the movie was masterful, thought-provoking, and highly entertaining.
Red Cliff Part 1 splendidly blends military action and hand-to-hand combat with a compelling script driven by politics, strategy, and ancient Chinese culture. Stunning special effects portray the vast armies of ancient China and its urban and rural landscapes. The translation to the English subtitles is very interesting. This is NOT a boring foreign movie. Red Cliff Part 1 is by far one of the best entertainment recently produced by filmmakers from any country. Running for two and a half hours, Part 1 never dragged on and left me completely looking forward to Part 2, which I did the next night.