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The Warsaw Voice » Culture » July 29, 2009
The world of movies
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Red Cliff
July 29, 2009 By Witold Żygulski   
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John Woo, the Chinese director famous for his Hollywood action movies (Face/Off, Mission: Impossible II, Paycheck, Windtalkers), had not shot anything in his own country since 1992. But once he decided to, he got a budget that broke records in Asian filmmaking history-over $80 million. He also got to take his pick of the region's stars and literary material that guaranteed success-a story called Romance of the Three Kingdoms, written almost 700 years ago and one of the most popular tales not just in China but across Asia.

Unfortunately, Woo wasn't able to secure the services of anyone capable of writing a mesmerizing script. Neither was he up to the task himself. As a result, for 145 minutes viewers are stuck watching a kind of historical documentary under the working title "Methods and tactics of fighting a war in China at the beginning of our era." Viewers are treated to occasional insights into the nuances of tea-making techniques, diplomatic protocol in political negotiations, and other details of everyday life in the (very) old days. But the characters have little depth, while the stilted dialogue sometimes elicits bursts of laughter from the audience.

The year is 208 AD. The official ruler of China is an emperor from the Han dynasty, but real power is wielded by the prime minister, Cao Cao (Zhang Fengyi-The Assassin), an insanely ambitious leader obsessed with seizing power and uniting all the country's regions by force. In the prologue, he forces the weak and submissive emperor to entrust him with undertaking an expedition against two allegedly rebellious kingdoms-the western kingdom ruled by the emperor's uncle, Liu Bei, and the southern kingdom, where the young Sun Quan (Chang Chen-Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) rules on the Yangtze River. Cao Cao's almost million-strong army makes short work of the first adversary. Liu Bei escapes from the battlefield with 30,000 of his most loyal soldiers and decides to send his trusted strategist Zhuge Liang (Takeshi Kaneshiro-House of the Flying Daggers) southwards to propose a defensive alliance. During his mission Liang wins the respect not only of Sun Quan, but also of the province viceroy and great leader Zhou Yu (Tony Leung-Hero, 2046, Infernal Affairs). Together they must face the invaders' mega-army and a fleet of several thousand ships. They find themselves having to rely on cunning, courage and… weather forecasting skills.

Reviewers have compared Red Cliff with such European productions as Wolfgang Petersen's Troy or Ridley Scott's Gladiator. In both cases, this is justified only as regards the battle scenes. Yes, these unfold on an epic scale, but that is no surprise given the budget and an added bonus from the government in Beijing in the form of several thousand soldiers from the Chinese People's Army lent out as extras (if you can call participants in bloody fighting scenes that). As usual in Chinese movies, the film is meticulous down to the smallest detail, including in sets, costumes and music.

Despite its faults, Red Cliff has proved a box-office triumph, primarily in Asia. It's been such a success, in fact, that its sequel, Red Cliff II, recounting the further adventures of the protagonists, is now also setting the cash registers jingling. The sequel is likely to arrive in Poland in around six months.
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