I caught Red Cliff (赤壁) over a weekend midnight, and, while I did not regret watching it, I think it’s an extremely uneven, overrated movie.
Depicting a key battle in the acclaimed Chinese novel Romance of the Three Kingdoms (a commentator in one annotated edition said that it could be considered the most widely read, deeply influential Chinese classic), the movie – actually Part One of two, the other doubtless to be released as a year-end blockbuster – features many figures who would be familiar to most Chinese: Liu Bei, the benevolent ruler; Guan Yu, his sworn brother, a warrior supreme, who’s become a revered diety in Chinese culture, famed for his loyalty and integrity; Zhang Fei, his other sworn brother, Guan Yu’s equal in battle but reckless; Cao Cao, Liu Bei’s enemy, tyrannic, intelligent and unscrupulous; Zhuge Liang, a strategist synonymous with intelligence among the Chinese; Zhou Yu, Zhuge Liang’s equal, his nemesis, whose death was famously caused by the failure of his plans to kill Zhuge Liang and whose last words were “即生瑜,何生亮” (“Yu was born, why Liang too?”), a lament streaked with various measures of jealousy, appreciation of a comparable talent and frustration with the fates; Zhao Yun, so deadly and fierce a warrior that he struck fear in the hearts of those he faced on the battlefield well into his 70s.
Movies that are adaptations of well-known books/stories – say, The Lord of the Rings trilogy and the Harry Potter series – have an unenviable task: they need to make the movie environs and the movie characters gel with the audience’s expectations, something that I think ranks as the highest achievements of the aforementioned two sets of movies.
Red Cliff does not hit these heights in the case of character design.
The most successful character to me was Zhao Yun: steadfast, unwavering, efficiently destructive with his spear, he is the star of one of the most impactful scenes of the movie – guarding, then losing, his master’s wife and only son, deep in enemy territory, he scythes through faceless baddies in his desperate quest for them; he finds his master’s wife injured, and she begs him to return to her husband with his son, and to leave her, as she would only slow him down; upon his refusal, she jumps into a well; he seals the well, so no one may pillage her body, and buckles his master’s son inside his armour, and unleashes a furious assault on his way back to his master.
Cao Cao has so far – this is after all still the first part of two – been a caricature: driven to fatuity by his obsession for Zhou Yu’s wife Xiao Qiao, who herself is lustreless and over-acted.
Liu Bei is colourless and unmemorable. His sworn brothers are lifted from old, musty tomes: beards and brows in the right places and shapes but two-dimensional.
Zhuge Liang is almost effeminate, and his often comical banter with his nemesis Zhou Yu is out of tune with the rest of the fairly serious movie.
With its painstakingly and brutally realistic protrayal of Chinese tactics in battle, and majestic stretches of scenery, Red Cliff does not fail as entertainment. John Woo‘s feel for the kinetic is amazing: he imbues a silent swish of Zhou Yu’s feather fan with immediacy and power. However, in tone, it veers into the territory of games and comics, and it is not one of the best movies of the year. With its budget and star power, that’s a failure in my books.