Review: 'Red Cliff' restores credibility of Chinese epic

Hong Kong director John Woo, centre, speaks about his new movie 'Red Cliff' with Taiwanese...
Hong Kong director John Woo, centre, speaks about his new movie 'Red Cliff' with Taiwanese-Japanese actor Takeshi Kaneshiro, left, and actor Tony Leung. Photo Vincent Yu/AP.
A true epic needs more than the grandeur of its landscapes, the lavishness of its sets and the sheer manpower of its battle scenes: It needs a truly epic story.

John Woo displays the crucial distinction in the magnificently told Red Cliff, the Hong Kong director's triumphant return to Chinese film after 16 years in Hollywood.

Using old-fashioned good storytelling, Red Cliff restores credibility to the genre of Chinese historical epics that have often been tainted by pointlessly large-scaled and action-packed productions.

Woo is helped by a wealth of source material. Red Cliff is based on a storied historical period that has inspired video games and comic books - third-century prime minister Cao Cao's quest to unite a divided China.

But the director breathes new life into Cao and the colourful cast of characters that oppose him.

There's the ruthless and arrogant Cao, who dishes out beheading orders casually and lusts after the wife of one of the resistance fighters; his main rival, the avuncular Liu Bei, who despite Cao's invasion still finds time to weave grass shoes; Liu's pudgy and hotheaded lieutenant Zhang Fei, who never hesitates to speak his mind.

Liu's ally, Sun Quan, is a young ruler who struggles to find his confidence living under the shadow of his accomplished late brother and father.

Woo takes the time to introduce anecdotes that define each character. The epic battle scenes involving scores of extras and enhanced by special effects are still there - including a complex fight centered on a maze-like military formation - but most of Red Cliff is spent filling out the rich cast of characters.

The director is so keen on building an epic story that he even leaves the final showdown between the two sides to a second installment. Red Cliff, which will be released in Asia this month, is the first part. The sequel will be released in December.

Woo's grand narrative justifies the two-parter. In Red Cliff, he paints such a delightful ensemble of characters and sets up such a sharp contrast between the two opposing sides, bracing the audience for a titanic battle between Good and Evil in the sequel.

The outstanding storytelling and character building is reminiscent of Star Wars. The story feels similarly epic; the characters similarly funky. Interestingly, the English subtitles cast Liu's side as the "rebels" and their opponents as the "empire" - the same terminology used in George Lucas' legendary sci-fi series.

And Woo injects humour and a modern sensibility into his characters, removing any feeling that these are outdated personalities hundreds of years old.

Japanese-Taiwanese heartthrob Takeshi Kaneshiro brings youthful playfulness and sarcasm to the role of Liu's famed military strategist, Zhuge Liang. At first glance, Kaneshiro lacks the gravitas to carry such an esteemed character in Chinese history, but he gives the character a unique, refreshing interpretation.

But the biggest surprise in the cast is Chinese actress Zhao Wei, who steals the show with her portrayal of Sun's spunky tomboy sister Sun Shangxiang, frustrated that her military ambitions are dismissed by the men around her.

With Red Cliff, Woo shows he's still a masterful director to be reckoned with.

It's a feat made all the more outstanding by the difficulties he faced in the production. Two major stars - Chow Yun-fat and Cannes best actor winner Tony Leung Chiu-wai - dropped out at the last minute, although Leung later rejoined the cast. A stuntman died in an accident and torrential rains washed away part of an outdoor set in northern China.

It's unclear, however, if Woo's story can win over non-Asian audiences who are less familiar with the Chinese history. He is releasing a condensed, one-installment version in international markets. It remains to be seen if the abbreviated story will lose the character development and nuances that enabled Red Cliff to shine.

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