MOVIE REVIEW ★★★ ½ / 4 ‘Red Cliff’ — An Epic of Chinese Philosophy

An Intimate View Into China’s History

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A determined and cunning Xiao Qiao (Chiling Lin) confronts her husband’s enemy Cao Cao to make peace and stall time in the film Red Cliff.
Courtesy of Magnet Releasing
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Zhao Yun (Jun Hu), the dignified warrior who saves his emperor’s infant son from slaughter, braves combat with a loyal legion in the film Red Cliff.
courtesy of Magnet Releasing

Red Cliff

Directed by John Woo

Written by John Woo, Chen Han & Sheng Heyu

Starring Tony Leung, Takeshi Kaneshiro, and Zhang Fengyi

Rated R

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Blockbusters these days run on one platform. There are heroes and villains, honesty and deceit, escalating action and affection, and a grand purpose at stake. Flashback to the summer of 2008: America’s box-office triumph The Dark Knight was China’s record-breaking Red Cliff. The Joker could be Cao Cao, the power-hungry chancellor war-mongering in an otherwise content land. Batman and Harvey Dent could be Zhou Yu and Liu Bei, the morally righteous leaders trying to stop Cao Cao. The characters trick and threaten, manipulate romance, and the fate of Gotham City translates into the fate of the Chinese Kingdoms. There is really no point in concealing the ending: in either film, you learn that there is no winner or loser, but only a volatile society and uncertain peace. You might ask, then, what’s the point? No doubt, Red Cliff delivers the same edge-of-your-seat gutsy thrill and suspense The Dark Knight does, but this film’s unique value comes from its insight into a lasting Chinese school of culture and philosophy.

Red Cliff, drawn from the historical records of the Three Kingdoms, enlivens one of the bloodiest periods in Chinese history. In 208 CE, China is split into three states under three different leaders: Cao Cao (Zhang Fengyi), Liu Bei (You Yong), and Sun Qian (Chang Chen); one land under multiple men naturally leads to agitation and a risky balance between offensive and defensive action by each kingdom. The film traces each leader’s careful decision to go to war, the formation of alliances and strategies, and one woman’s power to keep each party vested in winning the battle.

At the roots of the suspenseful plots concocted in Red Cliff are philosophical principles grounded in ancient China. Early on, Liu Bei gives up a possible path of attack in order to evacuate his loyal villagers. This focus on loyalty resurfaces as Cao Cao’s men are startled every time their outnumbered opponents return to battle. In fact, one fundamental Chinese principle is that you do not necessarily need overpowering numbers to win a war — you just need cleverness. This cleverness thoroughly manifests in Zhu Ge Liang (Takeshi Kaneshiro) — Liu Bei’s chief strategist who “reads” the sky, the earth, and the people in order to devise methods to outsmart Cao Cao. In a critical battle, Zhu Ge Liang wisely advises Zhou Yu (allied with Liu Bei) to use a fire attack based on a key observation that the cloud formations signify a favorable change in wind direction. Soon after, Zhu Ge Liang uses nature again by predicting the onset of fog. In fact, Zhu Ge Liang’s seemingly perfect control of the skies seems rather unrealistic; what are the chances that the wind changes and fog shows up just when Zhu Ge Liang needs it?

Such exaggerated incidents only serve to emphasize the basic tenet that if one can understand nature, one can win a battle — literally. Furthermore, when Zhu Ge Liang is seeking alliance from Zhou Yu, he attains an answer from a tense but passionate string instrument duet with the viceroy. Zhu’s ability to silently gauge another’s willingness to fight is representative of the acuity honored in Chinese philosophy. In such ways, Red Cliff stimulates the audience with thousand-year principles that remain relevant today.

With so much subtle observation going on, as well as Zhu Ge Liang’s surreptitious smirks left and right, suspense is overflowing. Who is telling the truth? Who is going to make a mistake? Will this tactic work? How will the other side respond? You can only experience the suspense by viewing the film yourself. And a final note: as expected from a high-budget Chinese film, cinematography in Red Cliff is breathtaking — from the opening scene with a thousand horses to panoramic views of the tallest mountains and longest rivers, the visuals successfully characterize the value of this vast nation all the kingdoms are fighting for. It’s a film for the enthusiast of nature and a population.