Nether Regions 12.29.09: Red Cliff Part 2
Posted by Chad Webb on 12.29.2009
The sophomore issue of "Nether Regions" takes on Red Cliff Part 2, the final portion of John Woo's epic. You know you want to click. Everyone else is doing it.
Nether Regions started as a segment of the Big Screen Bulletin that meant to showcase films that have been discontinued on DVD, are out of print in the United States, are only available in certain regions outside the United States, or are generally hard to find. Now it is a column all its own! You might ask "Why should I care about a film I have no access to?" My goal is to keep these films relevant because some of them genuinely deserve to be recognized. Every time I review a new film I will have a list of those I covered below so you can see if they have been announced for DVD release, or are still out of print.
Red Cliff Part 2
Starring: Tony Leung, Takeshi Kaneshiro, and Fengyi Zhang Directed By: John Woo Written By: John Woo, Khan Chan, Cheng Kuo, Heyu Sheng Theatrical Release Date: Shortened version released on November 25, 2009 Missing Since: 2009 Existing Formats: Import/Region 0 DVDs Netflix Status: Not Available Availability: Only available through Amazon used sellers
For my article on Red Cliff Part 1, please click here.
Warning: This article may contain significant spoilers from "Part 1"
The first portion of Red Cliff was about laying the groundwork for the forthcoming battle, and making sure to be well prepared for the tough road ahead. The second and final portion is about mind games, and ultimately, seeing the war through to the conclusion. At the end of "Part 1", it was revealed that Prime Minister Cao Cao (Zhang Fengyi) could have other intentions apart from his obsession with the throne, or supreme domination. Watching him interact with a female worries his Generals. The rumor circulates that he could be waging this war for the love of a woman, specifically Xiao Qiao (Lin Chi-ling), the beautiful wife of Zhou Yu (Tony Leung). This is never addressed further until "Part 2", and the subtlety of the suggestion makes this possibility fascinating and suspenseful.
We get a brief, but satisfying, recap of certain events from "Part 1." The most important of those is that Princess Shang Xian (Zhao Wei) has infiltrated the enemy camp as a soldier. She and Zhou Yu are communicating via message on doves. One of the first things she attends at the enemy camp is a game of Cuju, in which she briefly participates. She strikes up a friendship with one of the star players, who in turn is given a promotion to Battalion Commander due to his adept skills of the game. Meanwhile, the allies are playing a game of their own, called Pitch Pot. This involves throwing an arrow into a vase that vaguely resembles something one would put flowers in. This is done from a long distance, and looks incredibly difficult. This is used as a metaphor for the entire war, which is nice.
At the end of "Part 1", Zhou Yu's plan for attacking Cao Cao's fleet is displayed. His idea is to use fire to burn all the ships. The problem is the wind, which looks to be in Cao Cao's favor. If the allied forces use fire with the wind against them, it will fly back in their faces. At the same time, Cao Cao's vast military is suffering from an epidemic outbreak (of typhoid specifically). His doctor informs him that it will get much worse as the days roll along. In one of the most wicked and despicable tactics I have ever seen regarding war, Cao Cao chooses not to burn the bodies, which will kill the spread instantly. Instead, he puts the infected corpses on rafts, and pushes them down to the enemy camp. Those soldiers immediately touch the bodies and search for supplies, causing an infection in that camp as well.
This is the Blu-Ray available in other countries.
What makes that sequence ironic is that Zhou Yu declared that rules must be followed in war, and he refrained from acting too ruthless. It comes back to haunt him quickly. To make the allies situation worse, Liu Bei (You Yong) has decided to retreat, taking over 40,000 troops with him. His feeling is that the epidemic spread has prevented them from having a real chance, and he wishes to live on rather than die so quickly. This greatly hurts their hopes at fighting with a strong naval approach. Cao Cao, on the other hand, has a steadfast strategy. He relies on commanders Cai Mao (Yi Zhen) and Zhang Yun (Jia Hongwei), both brilliant at their jobs. They have developed the Pincher formation, which will allow the fleet to connect all the ships together, and separate at will.
Red Cliff Part 2 focuses on winning numerous small battles that will aid in attaining victory for the entire war. Psychological warfare, and understanding how that works, is the name of the game. "Part 1" presented viewers with glorious battle sequences. "Part 2" saves the encounter for the end, which results in a near 1 hour clash of grand proportions. Spoiling it would be a sin, but suffice to say that it is amazing. What occurs prior to that is as riveting as it gets. Zhou Yu and his remaining forces realize they are severely outnumbered, and will probably lose. He never wavers from his plan to fight until his last breath however. He convinces everyone that this is the only path to choose. Tony Leung's performance continues to be fervent and controlled throughout. HIs character is an example of someone who knows he must convey confidence under pressure. He has accepted that his fate could be death, but that does not mean he will sit back and let it happen.
Cao Cao is certainly arrogant, but not excessively so, and yet he maintains a steady balance of cockiness and intelligence despite the setbacks. He is obviously the villain, but his reasoning is not outlandish. In his eyes, he is cleansing the world of warlords. His main goal is to rally his troops. One of his ways to achieve this is that his men and their families will be exempt from taxes for 3 years if they win. Whether or not he lives up this promise is beside the point. This helps in gaining support from the large amount of disloyal troops the allies always assumed he possessed. Zhang Fengyi shines brighter than any other actor in "Part 2." His rendering of Cao Cao could have gone off the deep end into the realm of the silly, but he absolutely never does. His speeches to his troops are marvelous. Do not think of Gladiator or Braveheart style speeches. One of the superb moments has Cao Cao reciting a poem in his camp.
The tone and mood of "Part 2" is akin to a heist film of a thriller. The amount of trickery, underhanded schemes, and dirty tactics that are attempted made me think of The Sting somehow, but this is such a refreshing and unique change of pace. Consider Jiang Gan (Shi Xiaohong), who is sent by Cao Cao to Zhou Yu in hopes that he will surrender. He is chosen because they were old friends. Jiang Gan is such a fool that Zhou Yu builds a plan for him that could affect Cao Cao's strategy. They get drunk together, and Jiang scurries around the room searching for clues and hints of strengths and weaknesses. It is a humorous segment, but one that is not desperate for laughs.
Director John Woo (M), Chi-ling Lin (L) and Zhang Zhen arrive at the premiere of "Red Cliff Part 2" on January 4, 2009 in Beijing, China.
Zhu Ge Liang was associated with Liu Bei, but when he leaves, Zhu Ge stays, fulfilling his promise to Zhou Yu and Sun Quan. His role is still vital, and his intelligence saves the allies on more than one occasion. Takeshi Kaneshiro is wonderful as Zhu Ge Liang, repeating the reserved and cautious performance from "Part 1." He is handed the task of obtaining more arrows since Liu Bei took his. The idea for getting these is genius, and also results in "Part 2's" most eye-opening sequence. Zhu Ge is also the man who gauges the stability and patterns of the weather. Because bullets and more advances weaponry is not available, fire, arrows, and other types of attack methods are utilized. They can all be affected by the weather, and in a way, the weather acts as an invisible third foe.
Director John Woo employed a large team of devoted crew members for this project. There were three editors: Angie Lam, Yang Hongyu, and Robert A. Ferretti. All deserve credit along with John Woo for taking a near 5 hour experience and unraveling it at such a smooth flowing and brisk speed. For those who get antsy during long movies, you would be hard pressed to pinpoint any dull moments in Red Cliff. No shot is trivial or unecessary, and the running time flies by with ease because you become so immersed in this time period, so invested in the characters, and so involved in the ideas for both sides. The editing trio knows precisely when to slice and dice. Woo and company include many stylish shots to prevent Red Cliff from falling into the funk of many normal historical epics.
Lu Yue and Zhang Li are the cinematographers, and both should receive more recognition for the truly astounding contribution to this film. From the dazzling daytime battles of "Part 1" to the eerie nighttime moments of "Part 2", Red Cliff is a monumental achievement in terms of visual splendor. One of the lasting images are the flying lanterns Zhou Yu sends, or the lit posts leading up to Cao Cao's base. The manner in which light and shadow are manipulated is particularly spellbinding. Taro Iwashiro leads the Tokyo Metropolitan Symphony Orchestra in a stimulating and poignant score that swells exactly when it should during a historical epic such as this. He does not just cue the audience to feel a certain emotion, but gives meaning and definition to the three-dimensional characters, locations, and proceedings. As a critic and viewer, I prefer music that gets me excited about the film, and Iwashiro accomplishes that here with flying colors.
There are quite a few CGI shots integrated into Red Cliff, and although frequent viewers have been conditioned to spot these instances in films nowadays, you will likely observe a couple obvious moments where Woo and the Orphanage use CGI. It is expertly handled from start to finish. The special effects allow the viewer to glimpse the war from angles that would have previously been impossible. I found the marriage of CGI and authentic set pieces to be seamless and mind-blowing. As big as the editing, cinematography, and CGI teams are, Timmy Yip takes three responsibilities for Red Cliff, namely the costumes, set decoration, and art direction (along with Eddy Wong). He had a full plate, but the combination of his hard work, dedication to accuracy, and John Woo's vision made Red Cliff so beguiling and resplendent.
Those who attest that John Woo will never top his 80's actioners might not be entirely won over here, but the fact that he ascends from those smaller scale pictures to such a lush and enormous picture like Red Cliff proves he wants to explore other territories of cinema. This accentuates the poetry he brings to the action and adventure in the form of an epic with spears, bows, and catapults. He meshes with the pageantry as if it was always waiting for him. Red Cliff as a whole certainly has similarities to Akira Kurosawa, but not in a manner that rubs off like a mediocre imitation. Woo's sense of kinetic energy and gandeur is on full display, and his own stroke makes this strikingly different.
Those who are not familiar with the history of the Three Kingdoms, but are with video games, will be reminded of Dynasty Warriors, which was actually based on the novel Romance of the Three Kingdoms. Make no mistake, Red Cliff is not based on a video game, but if you desired a live-action representation of that game, nothing will surpass this. It is also mercifully not a history lecture. John Woo instills Red Cliff with his own groove, one that appeals to everyone. This is not just choreographed battles spliced together with a paper thin thread of a premise. The individual characters and their relationships act as the glue of the film, and without them, it would not have resonated so intensely and with such a profound impact. Woo knows how to shift from a peaceful allure to dramatic skirmish while mantaining a consistent attitude. This is a great feat from a great filmmaker.
Red Cliff had an estimated budget of $80 million, making it the most expensive Asian financed film to date. It also broke box office records in China previously held by Titanic. The film has won 5 Hong Kong Film Awards and 1 Asian Film Award. Last week, a reader mentioned that the full version was announced for a region 1 Blu-Ray release on March 30, 2010. I hope this is true, as it gives everyone a chance to see the full version. Yes, this is a return to form for John Woo. He has reclaimed that spark that became a bit cloudy amidst his American releases. With Red Cliff, he balances nuance acutely with the battle sequences and drama. For those who want to be entertained, make a point to see this film.
So my excursion into Red Cliff is complete. I have given more 10/10 ratings this year than I ever have since joining 411mania. I stand by every one of them. I do not give that rating lightly, but this has been a terrific year for movies. Some might disagree with me there, but in my experience, those who say that simply haven't seen enough movies. I hope you all had a great holiday. I know I did. It's always fun to see friends and family, and luckily I did not get any sticks of coal in my stocking this year, which means I was good I guess.
Those fans of mine, all three of you, who have followed me from The Big Screen Bulletin to Nether Regions will be pleased to hear that I plan on writing a "Top 10 Pet Peeves" article, as well as a "Best/Worst of 2009" article, which will follow that. My tentative title is "Editor's Note." As most of my catching up with movies from 2009 is complete, I must kick my listening to music into high gear as I have loads of CDs that have yet to be inserted into my player. I picked up "Them Crooked Vultures" and the latest "Slayer" for Christmas.
By the way, for updates on all the movies I am seeing that I have not written full reviews, you can consult my blog, which should soon be lighting 411 on fire with hits. View it by clicking here. I plan on adding other random thoughts on CDs, plays, and other topics that float into my head as well.
-Thanks to Jeremy Thomas for my banner.
"The plural of Chad is Chad?"
--From the movie Recount