May 21, 2010

[Movies] Chi Bi / Red Cliff (2008)

Chi Bi / Red Cliff (2008)The Romance of the Three Kingdoms, like many other ancient epics, has inspired many works beyond it. Books, movies and even video games - you name it and you'll eventually find out that it was somehow related to this epic tale. Covering the highly turbulent Three Kingdoms period at the end of the Han Dynasty, the book is rich with action, adventure, intrigue and all that good stuff.

Ironically my first encounters with the story involved the Dytasty Warriors franchise of games. The various battles and sequences involving noble heroes like Liu Bei and Zhou Yu and the cunning machinations of the traitorous Cao Cao and his massive navy. It's with some irony that I still haven't found the time to actually read the book despite how much of it that I'm already familiar with.

So when I finally heard about this movie from my brother, who is also major Dynasty Warriors fan, I knew I get to get around to seeing it.

Chi Bi or Red Cliff in international markets is the John Woo directed film based on the Battle of Red Cliffs, as taken from The Romance of the Three Kingdoms. It's a movie nearly as epic as the book itself given that the full version is actually presented in two complete two-hour movies. Yes, this is really a 4-hour epic when you get down to it.

The Eastern Wu forces look on as Liu Bei leave...Image via Wikipedia

The movie begins with Prime Minister Cao Cao (Zhang Fengyi) in pursuit of Liu Bei (You Yong) and his forces in order to retake the Soutern provinces. After Cao Cao's forces resort to killing civilians during the Battle of Changban, Liu Bei's chief strategist Zhuge Liang (Takeshi Kaneshiro) recommends that they seek an alliance with the armies of Sun Quan (Chang Chen) in order to face off against Cao Cao with a more respectable army. And thus the first half of the epic involves Zhuge Liang trying to win over Sun Quan and Viceroy Zhou Yu (Tony Leung).

Once their armies join, the second half of the movie covers the advance of Cao Cao's forces, even more clever strategems by both Zhuge Liang and Zhou Yu and even some entertaining misadventures of Sun Quan's tomboy sister, Sun Shangxiang (Zhao Wei). The movie ultimately ends with the epic battle of Chi Bi / Red Cliffs itself, which is really you've all come to see this movie to begin with.

While I can't speak around accuracy in relation to the original epic, it certainly presented a lot of highly recognizable moments based on my secondhand exposure to the original story through games and the like. The depictions were nicely realistic and the battles suitably epic, as is expected of movies of this nature.

My partner and I were a tad surprised that the story didn't fully embrace the limits of Wuxia-style filmmaking, but I guess John Woo wanted to come up with more grounded fight scenes that would help this feel almost like a historical account instead of fully embracing the classical tale. Still, this does not mean that you won't have your fair share of crazy battle sequences. The major general of the story still manage to take out swarms of enemy soldiers on their own and the various stratagems are wonderfully creative involving tortoise formations, reading the weather and yes, even ornate tea ceremonies. It's just another day in a romantic Asian epic.

The acting was pretty stellar as each actor or actress lives up to the characterations immortalized throughout history. You have the quiet efficiency of Guan Yu (Basen Zabu), the wild passionate anger of Zhang Fei (Zang Jinsheng), the whimsical battle attitude of Sun Shangxiang and amazing bravery of Zhao Yun (Hu Jun).

The movie really focused around the evolving tactics and the wartime relationship between Wu commander Zhou Yu and Shu advisor Zhuge Liang. Tony Leung delivered his normal high level of quality acting as we've seen in movies like Hero and Lust, Caution. Takeshi Kaneshiro was a bit of a surprise to me since I totally didn't recognize him from his time in House of Flying Daggers in his portrayal. He was totally awesome in this movie and I think I'll add him to my little list of Asian actors I like, hehe.

And of course we can't get away from the tropes of John Woo. The first half of the movie was a lot more serious and perhaps more artistic but clearly he couldn't hold back and thus he returned to his old ways come part two. This means lots of flying doves, interesting acrobatic sequences and new tropes like a blade cutting through cloth as a too-often repeated transition device between scenes. Still, it's part of the experience of watching a John Woo movie and it still remains nicely entertaining and fun.

Overall, this is an amazing movie whether or not you're a fan of The Romance of the Three Kingdoms. Chi Bi / Red Cliff gets 4 instances when Zhuge Liang seems to foster a personal relationship with a turtle out of a possible 5.

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