John Woo’s epic Red Cliff was butchered for its American release, cut down from its over-four-hour length to two hours. I have read of what was cut, and it actually makes me wince. Things like character motivation, small moments (the tiger hunt for example), set-ups of the historical situation, a voiceover was added at the beginning … Just a mess. It was released in Asia in two parts, and now, through Netflix, you can see the whole thing. I couldn’t recommend it more highly if I tried. Superlatives won’t even do. Only a cliche will express what I mean: Red Cliff, in its full version, is a must-see. A giant hit in Asia (one of the most successful highest-grossing films of all time), it is a universal epic, and yet one of its strengths is how rooted it remains in the culture of the land from which the movie sprung. Its eyes are not on the West, it doesn’t care about us, it is not pandering to us, its eyes are in its own past. This is history writ large, the tale of the Battle of the Red Cliffs, in 208-209 A.D.
One of my side obsessions (I have to kind of pick and choose which I let become the major obsessions, because there are only so many hours in the day) is military strategy through the ages. I love John Keegan’s work (what I’ve read of it anyway), and I tore through Victor Davis Hanson’s Carnage and Culture: Landmark Battles in the Rise to Western Power, trying to follow the moves of cavalry and flanking and pincer formations and all that jazz. I could tell you almost every strategic military move in the Battle of Bunker Hill. It’s part of the history of the region where I grew up, and also my country. The Battle of Red Cliffs is unfamiliar to me, and part of the joys of the film is opening up my mind and my curiosity to that part of Chinese history. It was the end of the Han Dynasty, and alliances were formed to combat the Prime Minister Cao Cao, run amok on his own grandiose power-grab. As with most famous historical stories, there are many versions: the accepted version, the romantic version, the post-modern version, if you will. Wherein does truth lie? Remember: it is those who write the history books who have the final say. At least until someone comes along to examine it again and say, “Now wait just a cotton-pickin’ minute …” For almost a century, John Adams’ and Thomas Jefferson’s “version” of Alexander Hamilton was the accepted version. And Hamilton died young, so he wasn’t around to defend himself, or exonerate himself. It has taken modern-day historians in the last couple of decades to re-examine this historical figure, strip away some of the accumulated prejudices (many of them unexamined) and look at him freshly. Here’s how I like to think about it: To John Adams, Alexander Hamilton was a dangerous individual. He had to be stopped and destroyed. That’s John Adams’s view, and it was very true to him. There was a grandiose self-destructive tyrannical streak in Hamilton. So although I admire Alexander Hamilton immensely (uhm, obviously), I find it interesting to remove myself from partisanship, or a defensive stance and take in what everyone else had to say about him. The battle over Alexander Hamilton continues. Beware those who want to have the last word. They want conversations to END, not continue.
And with Red Cliff, I was in military strategy HEAVEN. Give me outnumbered troops, surrounded on all sides, and have them figure a way out of it, through cleverness, wilyness and sheer trickery (Washington having troops parade past a certain field, looping around to parade again, to give the illusion that there were more soldiers there than there really were) – and I am a happy camper. For example, my favorite scene in Master and Commander, in a film full of great scenes, is the one where they disguise their ship to be other than what it is, a feint, a camouflage, like the bugs who can disguise themselves as twigs. Imagine an entire movie with scenes like that. Imagine an entire movie that immerses you in the minutia of military strategy, in the 3rd century, and you’ll get an idea of the sheer joy of Red Cliff.
But it doesn’t skimp on character, either, which is why it is essential to see it in its unedited version, as John Woo meant it to be seen.
To be honest, I didn’t get all of the names straight, but I’ll do my best with what I have. Red Cliff takes place at the end of the Han Dynasty, when the young untried emperor Sun Quan (played by Zhao Wei, seen in the first stunner of a scene sitting in a giant room in front of his cranky advisors, wearing a fey dangley crown, and he seems soft, like a typical useless monarch, more interested in playing with birds than fighting war) finds himself in a confrontation with a general named Cao Cao (played by Zhang Fengyi in a fantastic performance) over suppressing the upstart warlords in the south. The king resists. But he is not respected by anyone. His word carries no weight (and his transformation from that soft oblivious bird-lover in the first scene to a ferocious and focused warrior is one of the pleasures of this movie). Cao Cao easily sees his chance, and goes off on his own, with a giant army in tow to “pacify” (a terrifying word in military parlance, along the lines of “cleanse”) the South. The empire is thrown into chaos. Divide and conquer, right? A couple of far-seeing men realize that it would be far better to form an alliance than to continue to war with one another, which would weaken them in the face of Cao Cao’s onslaught. Previously warring factions join together. It is tense. The enemy of my enemy is my friend and all that. But who to trust? How will the alliance last? They are outnumbered. Cao Cao has the force of the Empire behind him.
Takeshi Kaneshiro plays Zhuge Liang, a military advisor to the new alliance, a crucial player, who stares at clouds, and wind patterns, based on his experience as a farmer, and comes up with brilliant plans to conquer Cao Cao’s army. It is a marvelous performance, moving and mysterious. Who is this man? We never know the whole story. Does he have a wife? It isn’t known. He is a skilled military tactician, and yet he admits freely that he battles anxiety, which is why he carries a giant bird-feather fan at all times. It relaxes him to fan himself. What an amazing character detail. Never explained. I love a script that has confidence like that. We are left to imagine what it is he is anxious about. He is not pathologized. Nothing like that. On the contrary, we admire him tremendously. He stands by the river. Cao Cao’s forces are massed across the river. It seems that all is lost. He notices that a small turtle is sweating. That means that fog is coming in the next day, which will give them a huge advantage. He is a marvelous character. I love his face. It is a kind and intelligent face.
Zhou Yu (played by Tony Leung) is a veteran warrior who has holed himself up with his ragtag band of men (many of whom are not more than boys), training them relentlessly. He is in service to the Emperor, and yet, what will that mean for him? It is complicated a bit for him because Cao Cao once upon a time fell in love with his wife (played ravishingly by Chi-Ling Lin), and Zhou Yu knows this, so all along the question persists: Did Cao Cao start this war to “capture” his wife? It turns out that this is not just a neurotic question.
Zhou Yu and Zhuge Liang would be fierce foes in any other time, but in this specific time, they become important friends. It is a beautiful and complex portrait of male friendship. There is a scene where they meet, and, after dinner, they play music together, on two different instruments, an intense and competitive duet, the two of them looking to outdo the other, by the sheer virtuosity of their playing. It’s a sexual scene. Sex is an important part of war, maybe the most important part, although rarely acknowledged. How much of war is one guy insisting that his dick is bigger than the other guy’s? And here, in this sensitive and exciting scene, of duelling zithers (or whatever it is they are playing), you feel that these men, without language, have bonded, one to the other. They have said to each other: “You. You are the one. I trust no one. Remember that. But here, in this moment, I trust you. You. You are the one.” It makes all other “buddy movies” pale in comparison, Tony Leung and Takeshi Kaneshiro playing with passion and also one-upmanship, glancing at each other through the scene, a clear sign of intent and desire. Their alliance is not formed with words or a binding contract. It is formed playing music together. Zhou Yu’s wife says to her husband, after their guest leaves, “Zhuge Liang is ready for war.” She could tell. From how he played music. Don’t discount women’s intuition, how it senses the subcurrent. She was right.
THAT is an “action script”.
Preparations for war begin. One of the leaders of a Southern province has his own army (he’s played by Sun Quan, a man of deep convictions, but caution as well), and they are seen early on fighting, and trying to protect the fleeing refugees at the same time. A choice is to be made. A faction of the army is devoted to protecting the refugees, and it becomes clear they will lose the battle if they do not remove those troops to go to the frontlines. But that will leave the refugees unprotected. Sun Quan says to Zhuge Liang, “These are Han people. If we do not protect them, then what is this war for?”
It is a deep and pertinent point, one of the backbones of the script. What is war for? I believe that sometimes you just have to fight. There is a greater good. Stand up and be counted. War is hell, as the saying goes, but so is tyranny. Tyranny is a life of living dead. Better to die for the cause than go down passively under the black boot of a despot. Jafar Panahi is an example of that. As is Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Ryzsard Kapusinski, Vaclav Havel, the men I consider to be my intellectual and spiritual idols. They knew how to fight. But is there such a thing as an honorable war? I believe there is, obviously, but these are not easy questions, especially not when you are on a battlefield. Red Cliff, in its length and scope, grapples with that issue. Honestly, I think, although obviously we are meant to sympathize with the Tony Leung side of the fight, Cao Cao is not a faceless sneering comic-book villain. John Woo is smart. Cao Cao, too, is operating from a set of assumptions, and his own belief in right and wrong. It is just that his version of right and wrong clashes with Zhou Yu’s version. Who is right? Well, the history books tell us that the victor is right. Right? Not so fast. There are scenes when Cao Cao uses dirty tactics, to terrorize his enemy’s morale. Typhoid is raging amongst his soldiers, hundreds of them have died. Instead of cremating them, as per the sanitary customs of the day, instead he sets the dead free on barges, to float over to the enemy camp, where they will then be handled and touched by Zhou Yu’s forces, not knowing that the bodies are infected and contagious. To Zhou Yu, this is not in the rule-book. The rule-book of an “honorable” war. It is important to him to fight with honor. But make no mistake: he wants to crush his enemy. Red Cliff handles these complex issues of warfare with finesse. It’s not so much that we see both sides. It’s that we see that war is brutal. You do what you have to do. And it is best when warriors remember what it is they are fighting for. All of that can be lost in the chaos of the battle. A good commander knows that, and prepares his troops accordingly. Training is key. Watching these men fight, the organization, the shields all coming down, as one, to buttress against the flying arrows, is nothing less than absolutely thrilling. It is brilliant war-time filmmaking. Every scene tops the former. It’s hard to believe that’s true, in a 4-plus hour film, but it’s true.
Zhao Wei (an awesome actress) plays the emperor’s tomboy sister, an accomplished equestrienne and archer, and a woman unwilling to play her assigned role as a woman. She becomes an effective spy, infiltrating Cao Cao’s forces, impersonating a boy, calling to mind Shakespeare’s many heroines in drag, Viola, Rosalind, Portia. How many women have seen such a chance to make a difference, in history, and taken it? Their names are not known to us, but they existed. She is the first over the wall. She has no fear. She is a patriot. Yet John Woo gives her room to be a woman, too, susceptible to things like softness, connection, a possibility of love, in the wrong camp. I have to admit I was afraid for her character. Not so much in terms of what would happen to her, but in how the script would treat her. Would she be used as a gimmick? Would her femaleness be used as a plot point, something to garner cheap sympathy? By that I mean: I was afraid that her womanhood would be revealed, and she would be on the verge of being gang-raped, and she would then be saved by her special friend in the enemy camp. If you think I’m exaggerating, then just picture how such women are usually treated in action movies, from A to Z, and how their “courage” in being “manly” is usually punished in the most female of ways. Red Cliff did not disappoint me, and I take such things very very seriously. I care about how women are portrayed on film. I don’t think they should be always good, or victorious, no. On the contrary. But when womanhood is used cheaply, to bring up primal protective patriarchal responses in the audience, that’s when I get my back up. It’s similar to filmmakers who use the Holocaust as a plot-point, a cheap shortcut to getting the audience on its side. I’m looking at you, Swing Kids. (As my friend Mitchell said, “Swing Kids appears to be about how, despite the Holocaust, a bunch of German teenagers managed to have a good time during the war.”) But Red Cliff didn’t go that way. It’s a stronger film for it. It did not betray her character. It did not betray me, the audience member rooting for her. Things do not “work out” for her, but the film didn’t go the typical route which most by-the-book films do, which can’t seem to figure out how to deal with womanhood. They want to thrill the audience with a fierce female, fighting alongside the men, but then, they don’t know what to do next with her, and, essentially, “put her in her place” by creating a situation of sexual violence from which she must be rescued. You can almost imagine the fevered all-male script conferences that go on: “I know! Let’s have her take a bath in the enemy camp, all afraid she will be discovered – and then – I know! We’ll have a shot of her breasts, close-up, make it really hot, and then we’ll see a soldier peek in on her … and then … I know, let’s have him be shocked, and then let’s have her cover her breasts … and oh, this’ll be great, a bunch of guys will burst in on her, naked … and then, her friend will bust in like Rambo and save her!” To the men who always say that women are being too sensitive about such issues, I reply: Be careful. Be careful what you defend. Especially if you care about art, art that is for all of us. In Red Cliff, Zhao Wei is a force to be reckoned with, even the men she fights alongside of have to admit that. Her maps are beyond brilliant. She helps them win the war. And yet, her heart opens to a friend she makes in the enemy camp. He thinks she’s a boy, he punches her in the stomach at one point, in a fond way, shocking her, and her heart opens up. Tomboys across the world will understand her pain. “Yes … I’m good at kickball … but … I’m also a girl … I want love, too… Can’t I have both??” I’ve rarely seen this strange dynamic portrayed so beautifully, outside of Shakespeare (who did it best).
There are so many scenes to treasure. Too many to count. A couple of my favorites:
— A fight scene early on with a general from Sun Quan’s army. Dammit, I wish I knew his character’s name, and I am sure he is totally famous with Asian audiences, so please, Asian film fans, fill me in: This man saves a baby, a crucial baby, a baby who will continue on the line, and then this man fights off all of the opposing forces with the baby strapped to his back. He is fierce. He is unstoppable. He is an incredible athlete. And yet it never becomes just a stunt-scene. What it is is a fight to the death. The baby must live. That is what this actor is playing, in all of his unbelievable fight sequences. I am so sorry I do not know this man’s name, or character’s name, because this man is so phenomenal, so incredible in his martial arts ability, first of all, but second of all, in his ability to inject worlds of emotion into his fighting. He spars with swords and arrows, in a fight scene that will have you on the edge of your seats, and all you are thinking is DID THE BABY MAKE IT?? This is a testament to his power as an action star. UnbeLIEVable scene.
— A show-stopping scene involving arrows and boats. Zhou Yu’s forces are better on the water, but Cao Cao has more boats. However, Cao Cao’s forces are nervous people, unused to the water. They don’t understand naval strategy. It has already been set up that Zhou Yu’s side don’t have enough arrows. They have 20,000 arrows compared to the 100,000 arrows on the other side. Zhuge Liang comes up with a plan, involving scarecrows, and floating their boats up to within shooting range of the massive enemy, in a scene that has to be seen to be believed. I am not lying when I say that I started clapping when I realized what he was up to, saying out loud, “THIS IS BRILLIANT.” It all dovetails with my obsession with military strategies. Absolutely unbelievable scene, from beginning to end.
— Early on in the film, early in the alliance between Zhou Yu and Zhuge Liang, a horse is giving birth. It is a breech birth. A frightening situation, dangerous to both mother and child. Zhou Yu’s wife lies over the horse, stroking it, commanding people to keep their voices down, because the panicked tones will disturb the birthing mother. It is this scene, and no other, that made me fall in love with the film. It brought tears to my eyes. I entered into THEIR world, and totally left my own.
— Cao Cao’s forces are drawn into a trap, laid for them by the opposition, who don’t have the numbers to win, but who are tricky enough that it just might work. The commander shouts at one point: “FLIP THE SHIELDS.” When they “flip the shields”, well, all I can say is, goosebumps erupted over my flesh, and you’ll just have to see it to see what I am talking about.
— Tony Leung’s first entrance, which is textbook “Entrance of Huge Honking Movie Star”, and satisfies the audience at such a deep level, who have been waiting for him to appear for an hour or so. When we finally see his face (and it is prolonged, John Woo makes us wait), we feel a swansong of relief, “Ohhhh, there he is”, and it is my favorite kind of star entrance.
— The final battle with the fire-boats ramming the banked boats. If I described it, I wouldn’t do it justice.
In the end, what makes Red Cliff special, is its willingness to let us sit in the philosophical implications of the business of war, in a way that calls to mind Apocalypse Now and Kurosawa’s films. You may think that your “version” of history is correct. It must be nice to be so certain.
John Woo has been making flashy and important action films for decades. Red Cliff is his dream project. His most personal film. It shows.