Please note several things about my viewing of the film as I saw it subtitled in Japanese.
1. I know jack about the Three Kingdoms. I played Dynasty Warriors 3 for about a week when I was in college. My neighbor on the other hand is a Three Kingdoms aficionado so what little I know about the story comes from him and Wikipedia.
2. I cannot read Shakespearian-style Japanese subtitles let alone keep up with the armada of names thrown around during the film.
In short this means I understood very little of the details of the film and therefore to trust my word about anything regarding dialogue or delivery holds little to no weight. Rather I will comment on the experience as a fan of film and as a fan of what John Woo used to excite and thrill us with ‘back in the day’.
Red Cliff is the anti-Kill Bill Vol. 1.
When the credits rolled after Bill reveals that B.B. is alive not only was I pumped for Vol. 2, but my mind was still whirling trying to pick up the pieces of my shattered vision of what ‘cool’ used to be. When the bilingual credits of Red Cliff Part 1 roll you will be furious. Excited? Yes, that’s undeniable. There is a storm coming in Part 2 that will no doubt Katrina our grey matter but Part 1 offers far too little to be an enjoyable experience by itself. Even the frighteningly brilliant, elegant and ferocious battle (more like a massacre) near the end of the film is far too late to spare the viewer from what is 2 hours and 20 minutes of the dry and only occasionally sparkling back-story.
I fell asleep in the middle.
“Oh my God this dick is biased, I’m not reading anymore.”
I will admit that the language and name barriers had something to do with it. No question. In the section of the film where Zhuge Liang (thank you Wikipedia) goes to ask for support from Sun Quan, the movie lost me. Completely. I was able to get enough from the subtitles to see the hemming and hawing going back and forth about whether to take a stand against Cao Cao or not. No doubt necessary for viewers to see the conflict the leaders were in but if what I hear about the US version being trimmed is true, this entire sequence could use it. The opening battle scene was more than enough to prove what a dire situation the rebel forces were in. I don’t know if Mr. Woo realized it, but even if I didn’t understand a single kanji, his skillful direction and use of space and cuts in the opening battle gave us exactly all the info we needed about many of our main players and exactly why they were so desperate.
After that the film goes into a series of ‘moral lessons’ where we focus on a seemingly rotating wheel of main cast members who each either learn something about themselves, their rivals or their enemies through a number of ‘experiences’ that are all quite dull. Of note is the tiger hunting scene with Sun Quan which while it didn’t need to be a Bay-inspired action romp, was handled almost sloppily with actors staring blankly as a man is ripped from a horse and dragged away. The point of this scene is clear and driven into our skulls as we, literally, see the tiger transform into the face of Sun Quan’s enemy but by the end of this sloppily handled scene we’re forced to ask ourselves, “Did we need to spend 17 minutes watching Sun Quan grow a pair?”
Each segment is similar, we watch the players interact, they go somewhere, do something of moderate interest, like awkwardly rock-out on zithers, and walk away smirking having learned something. I can best compare it to watching, in full, all the parts of a montage in FULL without the bitchin’ music. Again, when considering the bigger picture, these are essential scenes for what is no doubt coming down the road, but there’s the problem, we never get the pay-off. Imagine if you will, watching Rocky climb the stairs, raise his arms, and then have, “TO BE CONTINUED!”, flash across the screen.
So what did I get for my 1800 yen?
One interesting battle and one of the coolest realistic battle sequences I’ve ever seen on film. The opening battle switches between field battle and man-to-man street battles as villagers flee setting the stage for the dire places the rebels find themselves in which I mentioned above. Having watched it 24 hours there’s nothing that stands out in particular other than the fact that the battle also stands as the perfect introduction to many of the main bruisers and also has a nice surprising counter-attack but isn’t something we haven’t seen used elsewhere. It’s fun. But if the opening battle is fun, the land battle near the titular Red Cliff at the end of the film is 3-way crazy-sex.
My jaw was literally on the floor. We all know that Strategists are the coolest part of any organized fighting unit. They’re essentially Vegas-level chin-stubbled slick conmen who instead of taking money, take kingdoms. What Zhuge Liang and his rival concoct is just…it’s frightening. I saw one reviewer who is far more well-versed in the historical aspects of the film than myself found the final battle sequence to be humorous. I can’t see it. The idea is just so good, so smoothly put into action, it makes the 2008 Olympic Opening Ceremony look like my niece playing Twinkle-Twinkle Little Star on a recorder. The ‘assault’ quickly becomes a slaughter after the enemies are cut off from one another in a massive human trap and dwindled down effortlessly by the big bruisers. Guan Yu killing an entire unit with their own spears needs to be seen to be believed. Not standing around uselessly, the nameless grunts forming the ‘trap’ attack their foes with emotionless and spine-tingling ferocity. It makes one dream for a fantasy match between these bastards and the 300 gang. By the end they’ve literally become a whirling wall of near-invincible death. For those of you worried about if it’s too one-sided, yeah, it pretty much is. Cao Cao’s troops are more or less violated and you will love every moment of it. Bravo to Woo for managing this sequence.
But on that high note, the film goes back into low gear and stays there for far too long before throwing the inevitable, “TO BE CONTINUED!”, at us. I suppose it’s my ignorance of the story but I expected one more battle scene, guess not. When viewed together, Part 1 and Part 2 may be perfect bookends with Part 1 being our story and Part 2 being the [real] action but alone it doesn’t warrant the length or the sour ending. This may be one case where a shortened version could be a blessing if done with enough tact. Then when it’s time for Blu-ray, we can see it all at once in the comfort of our home theaters and be blown away while reading Wikipedia to keep everyone’s names and faces straight.