“The year is 208 AD. After 30 years of civil war, a deathly calm has fallen over northern China. One by one the rebel warlords have met their end under the sword of Prime Minister Cao Cao. Now even the Emperor bows before his power. Yet, from the south a challenge is heard. Two leaders rise against Cao Cao’s tyranny. The aging Liu Bei and the inexperienced Sun Quam. So Cao Cao petitions the Emperor to brand these men as traitors and declare a new war against the peaceful southlands.”
And so the stage is set for John Woo’s enormous epic Red Cliff. The scale of this film is simply one that must been experienced to quite understand. It has the grandeur of any of the largest films in Hollywood’s history. But this film is not a product of Hollywood. Woo filmed his massive triumph in his native China. You won’t find a bigger story told with more elaborate sets or with such a legion of actors, required to bring these historic battles to life. Gladiator. Kingdom Of Heaven. The Ten Commandments. Red Cliff deserves to stand with the best of them, and it will.
“Marching over 100 miles a day, the massive Imperial Army sweeps south, overrunning the capital ruled by Liu Bei. Hopelessly outnumbered, Liu Bei’s army makes a stand against Cao Cao’s invasion on a field outside the city. Liu Bei’s most loyal general leads this final attempt to shield the thousands of fleeing peasants from total massacre. Personally watching over the refugees is Liu Bei.”
I can’t speak for the historical accuracy of the events. Chinese history is not one of my strong suits. I rather suspect that much of it didn’t happen at all. But, to Woo’s credit, he did not set out to film an historical dramatization. Red Cliff would have you believe that this milestone battle was brought about by the desire of Cao Cao to posses a woman. Like Paris sailing off with Helen, fleeing the entire navy of Sparta and all of her Greek allies, Cao Cao treks his massive army of 800,000 troops thousands of miles for a point of pride and to take the woman of Sun Qwan. It’s a popular concept, perhaps first devised by Homer and continuing to this very day. In the popular television series Rome, we are led to believe that the scorn of a jilted lover set in motion Brutus’s iconic betrayal of Caesar, forever changing the course of an Empire. Why should Woo be any different? You don’t have to believe, because it doesn’t really matter what set these events in motion. Woo delivers them larger than life.
The first thing you will notice about Red Cliff is the masterful production design. Woo has created enormous palaces and temples. Using a combination of actual sets, paintings, and computer generated enhancements, these places look as convincing as if you were standing right there. The photography is absolutely beautiful. Once again Woo delivers incredible cinematography that is accented with the same magical tools as the sets to bring us to these places. They will look as real as any place you’ve experienced in life. I have to say that I’m not sure that I’ve ever seen more convincing places in a movie before.
Once you buy into the locations the battles fill them, bringing to life what at first is merely still beauty. Woo spares us nothing. The bloody battles are fought in close proximity with arrows, swords, and spears. The scenes are bloody, and the amount of gore exceeds anything you might have seen in any slasher film. But this is gore with elegance and style. There’s an almost poetic motion to Woo’s fighting choreography. There is some outstanding stunt coordination and wirework here. The film takes the encounters of a film like Gladiator and adds an element of grace that is the hallmark of the martial arts genre.
Finally, Woo has found a cast that appears to have channeled the spirits of these long dead historical figures. Every actor becomes the part that Woo has cast him or her into. It’s almost as if he were able to mold their entire person into the characters he is attempting to populate the film with. I really feel like I’ve met these people. I understand their motivations. Seldom have I seen all of these forces brought together so brilliantly. It’s high praise indeed, because I have seen tens of thousands of films over the years, and this is truly one of the best I’ve ever seen.
Woo brings to life some interesting nuances to his subject. Again, I’m no expert on this particular history, so it might all be invention. Still, some of the things explored here are very interesting. If true, this might have been the earliest known record of biological warfare. Cao Cao lines the path of the southland troops with the corpses of his own soldiers who are infected with typhoid. Sun Qwan uses the knowledge of a meteorologist who accurately predicts changes in weather that twice turn the tables of an encounter. In one instance the accurate prediction of fog allows the Southlanders to trick Cao Cao’s Navy into supplying them with hundreds of thousands of arrows. In another incident, an understanding of a change in wind direction completely alters the advantage in the most decisive battle of the campaign. The naval battle is as beautiful as it is epic. The pinpoints of light and fire as these ships engage each other is breathtaking. 10,000 ships filled these waters for the battle, and Woo gives you the impression of seeing all of them.
Red Cliff is presented in its original aspect ratio of 2.35:1. The 1080p image is arrived at with VC-1codec at an average 30 mbps. This film looks absolutely beautiful. This is one of those show-off films that you’ll end up using to demonstrate your equipment when you have friends over. The transfer is absolutely perfect. Every nuance of Woo’s sets, costumes, and locations comes through in all of the smallest details. Colors are simply fantastic. The robes of many of the Chinese nobles flash reds and golds across the screen in crimson streams of texture and intensity. Woo often floats a hint of mist or fog over his vistas that only help to make them appear that much more alive. Most impressive here is how seamlessly the computer generated material marries to the live action photography. I dare you to identify where reality and fantasy begin and end. Black levels are enormously deep and rich, once again delivering shadow definition on so many layers. If this picture could look any better, I want to see that. Heck I didn’t know my monitor could look that good.
The DTS-HD Master 5.1 audio is not as aggressive as you might imagine. It’s all about atmosphere and ambiance here. Woo doesn’t put the same amount of detail into the sound that he does into the image. You have a choice of the original Mandarin here with English subtitles or the English language version. I opted for the English. While I’m sure the experience might have been more accurate in the original Mandarin, I was far too involved in everything my eyes had to take in to be able to follow reading the dialog at the same time. The image is just too beautiful to ignore for the sake of the text. And so I admit I sacrificed the better audio experience, but I don’t regret it for a second.
The Making Of Red Cliff – The Long Road: (2:25:50) SD Much of this feature is in Chinese and unfortunately a bit tedious to follow. It certainly covers a lot of ground. It plays out like a television documentary of the film’s production. Stick with it, however. It does give you a unique look at Woo’s tremendous work on this picture, and the talented crew he assembled to pull it off.
A Conversation With John Woo: (27:03) HD Talk show host Leo Quinones sits down with John Woo. He asks some engaging questions, and Woo takes us through his own history. It seems that this film’s roots go back to when he was only 10 years old and used a piece of glass and a torch to animate his own version of his historic heroes. He also addresses the level of accuracy in the film.
HDNet – A Look At Red Cliff: (4:35) HD This is strictly a promo piece for the HD Network.
Storyboards and BDLive content.
If you enjoy the epic battle films, you simply can’t afford to miss this one. Now you have the opportunity to catch it all in high definition through this Blu-ray release. I can’t imagine seeing it any other way. You can worry yourself to death on the historical accuracy, if that’s what you want. But, you’ll be denying yourself one of the truly great films of our time. “Truth and illusion are often disguised as each other.”