Red Cliff: Part I (2008)

Red Cliff Part I [赤壁] (2008)
AKA The Battle of Red Cliff

Starring Tony Leung Chiu-Wai, Takeshi Kaneshiro, Zhang Fengyi, Chang Chen, Zhao Wei, Hu Jun, Shidō Nakamura, Lin Chi-ling, Tong Dawei, Hou Yong, You Yong

Directed by John Woo

Expectations: Moderate. I loved John Woo when I was a teenager, but I am more realistic about his strength as a filmmaker these days.


No one films action like John Woo. He is known for it and he does it very well. The action sequences in Red Cliff: Part I are outstanding, specifically the battle at the end of the film. The final battle fills up most of the last hour and it flies by. Without a doubt, one of the best action sequences in recent memory. It’s incredibly inventive and it feels like new ground, which is hard considering the massive legacy of kung fu pictures.

But to lump Red Cliff with standard kung fu films is wrong, because it really is more than that. It’s epic in its scope and its production design. It’s a kung fu film for the post-Lord of the Rings film era. But this is also where it falls a bit short for me. This first part of the film runs 146 minutes. It’s long. It feels long. There are times when certain scenes don’t seem necessary, so I found myself waiting through them, hoping for a better one next time. But a lot of my disappointment stems from my expectations. I came in to this film expecting a John Woo action picture. It delivers on that promise, no doubt, but it just takes a while to get there, so plan accordingly.

The story is based on the Chinese classic historical novel, Romance of the Three Kingdoms. It chronicles the story of Sun Quan and Liu Bei defending the Southlands against the Imperial Army led by General Cao Cao. Fighting on the side of the South are Guan Yu and Zhang Fei, who you will be familiar with if you’ve ever played a Dynasty Warriors game (which is also based on Romance of the Three Kingdoms). Being a fan of the Game Boy Advance version of the game, it was a treat to see these characters come to life.

The film is well shot and surprisingly colorful. For me, there was an overuse of close-ups but Woo’s choice to film his dialogue scenes without over-the-shoulder shots wins him so many points that I don’t mind the close-ups so much. There are computer-generated effects in the film and they are easily the weakest link. There are times when they aren’t bad, but some of the effects are ridiculous and laughable. Towards the end there are some overhead shots of horses running into formation and the animation on them is horrible. Truthfully, it’s a small annoyance in a great looking shot, so I can easily shrug it off and continue watching.

I fully recommend Red Cliff: Part I to anyone that enjoys foreign films or has enjoyed John Woo’s work in the past. For those that have never seen any of his films, it’s not the best starting point for his work, but you could easily do worse (see: Paycheck … actually, don’t see it).

And yes, before you ask, there are doves. Lots of doves.

Don’t forget to check out my review of Part II!

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Najn5TGOEco

6 comments to Red Cliff: Part I (2008)

  • I would have to say you review does not give Woo’s Red Cliff nearly enough credit. I thought it was one of the best movies I have seen in a long long time. The costumes, setting, characters, music and action make this Woo’s finest film. As I always say, a little Woo goes a long way. http://www.jpfmovies.wordpress.com

    • It’s a good movie. I like it a lot. I don’t think it’s Woo’s best film though. It’s definitely his biggest production and it is very well done, but for me it drags in places. The story is fantastic and all of the tactics used by the Southerners are fun to watch, but I just wish the movie was better paced. There is too much down time between action scenes. For instance, at the end of Part I you have this massive, action sequence that is nothing short of fantastic. The film ends with a little teaser shot of what will happen in Part II. In watching Part II, the teaser scene shown doesn’t actually occur until at least halfway through the film. Again as I said in the review, a lot of my problems stem from my expectations that the movie would be a pure action film. In reality, it’s closer to a drama with action scenes. But don’t get me wrong I like the movie a lot and I think people should see it. Just to see Guan Yu in action is awesome! Thanks for your comment. Did you see the film in the theatre? I might have liked it better if I had, I’ve been watching on Blu-Ray. I should have the review of Part II up soon.

      • I think you are on to something with your take that it is a drama with some stunning action scenes. Hard core Woo watchers (like and and it sounds like you)would generally expect wall to wall action. My thinking on that is Red Cliff would have been sensory overload if all 4-plus hours were action packed. I thought the down time (so to speak) added a bit of reality to the historical time piece because when you think about it not only do you have to plan for the battle, but the logistics alone of moving that kind of manpower must have been tremendous. For me the man was Zhuge Liang–mastermind behind the scenes. No I didn’t see it in the theaters, I heard the left a lot of film on the cutting room floor in order to shorten it. Check out my review of both 1 & 2 I think it was my first review on the site. http://www.jpfmovies.wordpress.com It is good to see someone who is not afraid of subtitles in today’s lazy film watching world. Any suggestions on what I should review next would be much appreciated. JPF

  • Sorry about the typos. I also forgot to mention that I thought the soundtrack was great too.

  • Yeah, there’s no way the whole running time could be action and I don’t mean to say that it needed more action. I got a copy of the US edited version from my library and man, it doesn’t even compare. It runs about the same time as just one of the parts. It made me appreciate the full version even more. I love subtitled movies. It is the only way to experience foreign films, and if you’re not watching foreign films you are missing out on some serious gems. As for what you should review, you mention Kurosawa in your Red Cliff write up. Have you seen a lot of his stuff? He has some amazing films.

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