Six months after the Asian release of the first segment of his epic diptych, John Woo (吳宇森) returns to the big screen with Red Cliff 2 (赤壁:決戰天下). Featuring moments of high drama, exciting action sequences and an arresting story about brotherhood, bravery and romance, the blockbuster further cements Woo’s triumphal return to Chinese-language cinema after a long hiatus in Hollywood where the director never managed to live up to the promise of his Hong Kong oeuvre.
After a brief recap of what took place in the previous installment, the audience is thrown back into the battlefield action where Cao Cao’s (Zhang Fengyi, 張豐毅) troops play a game of cuju (蹴鞠), an ancient Asian kind of football, as they wait for the battle of Red Cliff to start. In an inconspicuous corner, warlord Sun Quan’s (Chang Chen, 張震) spirited sister Sun Shangxiang (Zhao Wei, 趙薇), disguised as an enemy soldier, sends information about the enemy’s position by carrier pigeon to Zhuge Liang (Takeshi Kaneshiro, 金城武).
The news encourages Sun Quan’s coalition forces, which are formulating plans to defeat Cao Cao’s vastly superior force across the bay. Typhoid has broken out in Cao Cao’s camp, causing heavy casualties. But it doesn’t take long before the shrewd prime minister and strategist turns the disease to his advantage by rafting the infected corpses over to Sun’s camp.
A battle of wits ensues. Zhou Yu (Tony Leung Chiu-wai, 梁朝偉) successfully spreads fear and confusion among the enemy forces by false information. In the meantime, Zhuge Liang draws on his familiarity with the local weather and tactical expertise to steal weapons supplies from Cao Cao’s troops.
As a strong wind blows, both sides ready for a battle to the death. Meanwhile, Zhou Yu’s beautiful wife Xiao Qiao (Lin Chi-ling, 林志玲) ventures into Cao Cao’s camp alone in an attempt to use her diplomatic skills to prevent further carnage.
Needless to say, the good guys win, thus ensuring the survival of Sun Quan and Liu Bei and heralding the beginning of China’s Three Kingdoms period and, ultimately, the reunification of the country under the Jin Dynasty.
It is never easy to tackle a legend that has long been popularized and romanticized in countless textbooks, television series, video games and comic books, not to mention the 120-chapter Romance of the Three Kingdoms (三國演義), one of the four great classical novels of Chinese literature (四大名著). Audiences already have their own ideas about the events and characters. But though Red Cliff is not immune to criticism, the screenwriters have successfully condensed the richness of history and legend into an easy-to-follow structure that balances action and drama with Woo-esque romanticism.
Maintaining the fast pace of the first installment of Red Cliff — Parts 1 and 2 are being shown in a single, condensed version outside East Asia — the second installment smoothly shifts between action sequences, battle planning and anecdotes that flesh out the main characters, adding extra layers to what might otherwise have been a cumbersome epic. Everything is packed into a well-scripted narrative that will not overwhelm viewers. Woo defines and develops the characters, especially the two female roles played by China’s Zhao Wei and Taiwan’s Lin Chi-ling, who are accorded significant narrative weight, in contrast to their more decorative function in the first part.
Woo’s interpretation of the legendary figures is unconventional but works well within the director’s focus on loyalty and brotherhood. The vernacular language spoken by Woo’s characters may lack gravitas, but it gives the film a distinct charm and vitality.
The final battle scenes are grandiose, but the denouement is a tad flabby as military pageantry, martial arts sequences and close-ups of the heroes and villains’ grimacing faces grow stale after several reprises.
China’s Zhang Fengyi is the surprise star of the film. More than simply the power-hungry villain as depicted in Romance of the Three Kingdoms, his Cao Cao is an emotionally complex and charismatic leader who blushes before the woman he loves. Tony Leung Chiu-wai is as dependable as ever in his role as the composed Zhou Yu, while Takeshi Kaneshiro engages attention as the slightly effete strategist.
Given more to do this time around than in the first part, supermodel-turned-actress Lin exhibits sufficient gumption to carry off her part as Xiao Qiao. Taiwan’s Chang Chen, however, underwhelms in the supporting role as the indecisive Sun.
RED CLIFF 2
DIRECTED BY: John Woo (吳宇森)
STARRING: Tony Leung Chiu-wai (梁朝偉) as Zhou Yu, Takeshi Kaneshiro (金城武) as Zhuge Liang, Zhang Fengyi (張豐毅) as Cao Cao, Chang Chen (張震) as Sun Quan, Lin Chi-ling (林志玲) as Xiao Qiao, Zhao Wei (趙薇) as Sun Shangxiang, Hu Jun (胡軍) as Zhao Yun, Nakamura Shido as Gan Xing
RUNNING TIME: 113 minutes
LANGUAGE: In Mandarin with English subtitles
TAIWAN RELEASE: Currently showing
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