By Keen Zhang
After grossing nearly 312 million yuan (US$45.68 million) nationwide, the first part of John Woo's self-proclaimed "oriental Troy", Red Cliff, became the best selling Chinese film in the country's cinema history. Part II officially opened last night and will probably make Red Cliff the most successful Chinese film project ever.
In every sense, Red Cliff Part II is better than the Part I. The Three Kingdoms' legend is widely known among Asian people, so we don't have to guess the ending; it's a matter of seeing the legend properly materialized and enjoying the experience.
Red Cliff Part II continues the story of the historic Battle of Red Cliff. Cao Cao, prime minister of the Han Dynasty wants to destroy the power of two rebellious warlords, Liu Bei and Sun Quan, who have formed an alliance. Their armies confront each other at the Red Cliff, and an epic battle takes place.
In Part II, the director has opted for quicker plot development with several storylines woven together, making Part I seem like an overlong trailer for the second part. It was reported that John Woo made many changes after receiving negative feedback from viewers of Part I.
In the run up to the final battle, the two sides use many strategies drawn from classics on the art of the war, including germ warfare, psychological warfare, spies and counterspies, and the famous trick of "borrowing arrows" by sending straw boats out into the fog as decoys, all of which are very familiar, but none the less interesting to Chinese audiences.
Although the film stars A-list movie personalities Tony Leung Chiu-Wai, Takeshi Kaneshiro, Zhang Fengyi, Chang Chen, Hu Jun, Lin Chi-ling and Zhao Wei, few of them are at their best. Some of the modernized dialogue sounds odd and makes the audience laugh at the wrong moments.
Red Cliff Part II is still a Three Kingdoms story in John Woo's eyes. The US$80-million-budget film, the most expensive in Asia, is a little cavalier with both historical fact, and the novel Romance of the Three Kingdoms. But while historians will argue about some interpretations, the audience will enjoy a pure entertainment piece.
The climax finally comes in the last 30 minutes with the decisive battle. Visually, the effects may not be as grand and groundbreaking as expected, but the battle is a great chance for John Woo to show off his unique talent for staging cinematic violence. The Red Cliff river battle is like a D-Day Normandy Landing set in ancient China, with battleships, machine guns, tanks and missiles replaced by wooden warships, arrows, machine arrows, and gunpowder. Once on the ground, the soldiers use metal shields to cover themselves and form a tank-like moving fortress, which is very interesting to watch.
However, a truly great war epic is one that not only shows fierce, exciting and stunning battle scenes, but also delivers a message of peace and anti-war sentiment to its audience. John Woo more or less succeeds. "There are no victors here," Zhou Yu, one of the major characters says at the end of the film, even though he appears to be winning the war. Only a few are left alive, and there are dead bodies, smoke and fire everywhere. It brought to mind the tragic cruelty of the current war in Gaza.
(China.org.cn January 9, 2009)