When a typical Western movie goer thinks of grand, epic films and counties with the biggest film industries, they usually just list the UK, the USA and maybe Bollywood. What may be surprising to them is that there is one country missed off the list that’s film industry has grown so rapidly in recent years that their movie ticket sales are second only to the United States: China. In 2015 box office revenue in China hit $6.8 billion which is up 49% from the previous year.
That’s astounding considering that 26 years ago, chinese films were mainly government-approved communist propaganda films. Their audience attendance was tiny at best until they began importing some US-made films starting with The Fugitive. What may have also helped is the career transition of a particularly famous Asian filmmaker from China to the United States: John Woo. His filmography whilst he worked in Hollywood include Broken Arrow, Hard Target, Mission: Impossible II and the unforgettable Face/Off. 15 years after moving to the United States, Woo decided to return to the Chinese film industry and made the epic 2-part war film Red Cliff. Red Cliff is a film based on the Battle of Chi Bi from Records of the Three Kingdoms where two underdog rulers Liu Bei of Shu and Sun Quan of Wu took on the massive naval fleet of influential Wei ruler Cao Cao.
Whilst some may lament the fact that filmmakers haven’t made proper epic movies without the aid of arguably far too much CGI since Waterloo, I would suggest that Red Cliff is an exemption to the rule. Whilst some digital effects are in the film, a lot of the scenes are put together for real. Naval warfare was set up at two working reservoirs and the chinese army lent 1,500 soldiers to play extras and build roads. Add in the fact that the film’s estimated budget was $80 million US which is currently the most expensive Asian-financed film to date and it’s no surprise on paper that the film would be an epic. Does this come across in the actual movie? Absolutely.
Woo’s style has always been about stylistic and emotional grandeur and that’s exactly what audiences get from Red Cliff. The cinematography perfectly captures every moment from the incredibly choreographed battle scenes and the panning landscae shots to the tense strategy meetings and the romantic interludes. The editing is so tight and flawless that audiences genuinely wonder whether any of the extras really got murdered by being impaled on spears by the main cast. Accompanying it all is the spectacular and richly textured soundtrack by Tarō Iwashiro and the Tokyo Metropolitan Symphony Orchestra that further evokes the atmosphere of a time long forgotten.
One particular criticism some may have of Red Cliff is its dubious historical accuracy. Woo used two books for the basis of the movie: Records of the Three Kingdoms and Romance of the Three Kingdoms. As you can imagine Records of the Three Kingdoms is the official historical text writte by Chen Shou in the 3rd century which covers the history of the late Eastern Han Dynasty (c. 184-220AD) and the Three Kingdoms period (220-280AD). It’s the text that the historical novel Romance of the Three Kingdoms is based on. Woo admitted himself that Red Cliff is only 50% factual. He found historical accuracy less important than how the audience felt about the battle and the characters. This is definitely in keeping with his general narrative style in films. Woo commonly mixes hyper-kinetic, chaotic action with psychologically interesting characters so altering the historical events makes sense but does it mess with the film’s historical authenticity? In my opinion, no. Everything from the characters’ costumes, the dialogue and the fighting is very 3rd century. The audience gets an excellent glimpse at what life may well have been like in war-time 3rd century China. A lot of work has gone into the film to do as well as they can to give the audience a more modern story with a historically authentic atmosphere.
This is a film that is a must-see! The uncut version that was released in Asia is now available on DVD in the West so you can see the entire 4-hour plus epic for yourself in the comfort of your home. It’s a film that’s not for background viewing – it’ll command your attention for its entire run time. It has a winning formula of stunning visuals and a gripping narrative.
WHAT DO YOU THINK?