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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!

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