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John Woo’s Red Cliff review – Magnificent in all but one way

Submitted by on July 12, 2009 – 7:48 pm4 Comments

red_cliffOn reviewing (or as it is known by its original name: Chi Bi) you can’t help but wonder if you are writing about a film or a . Essentially John Woo’s latest movie is like playing Dynasty Warriors () for over 2 hours. Unpronounceable names and silly hair styles are rife along with fountain-like blood and big spears which all add to the Dynasty Warriors feel.

Over the past few weeks 4 out of 10 has had an advertisement for the UK (and US) release of the film on its site. In fact, on that advert is a statement from an Empire review claiming: “The best thing John Woo has made in years”. This always seemed a strange quote to use on an advert, as this is the first film John Woo has made in years (4 years to be exact). Does this mean that Red Cliff is any good? Which is more likely to entertain, the Western release (approx 148 minutes) or the original Asian release in two parts (making a whopping 280 minute runtime)?


Based on the events during the Three Kingdoms period in Ancient China in which specifically told in the title, The Battle of Red Cliffs.


Let us get one thing straight from the off: Red Cliff is immense. It is a magnificent construction of filmmaking and with every scene, you sit there wondering how it was made. With approximately 100,000 extras on hand (lent by the Chinese army) every scene is a wonder to the viewer with how it was pieced together.

You may be wondering why I have decided to start with such a positive first paragraph to the critique. Well, this is due to the fact that despite the splendour of the visuals, Red Cliff fails on several fundamental counts. You can appreciate the wonder of a film and still be bothered by the flaws therein.

In Saving Private Ryan, Spielberg introduced the world to the sheer horrors of war. In a film that basically focuses on one war, you would expect to experience these horrors again and again in Red Cliff. Strangely though, you do not. In fact almost the entire piece is somewhat absent of emotion. A strange teasing of a romance is thrown in for good measure but this does not make up for the fact that you witness the death of many thousands of individuals onscreen and you don’t really care much about it. In this respect (again) it is much like Dynasty Warriors.

The reasoning behind the war is simply unclear and not much effort is put in place to explain it. Other than an obsession with a woman (who must have been a child when the obsession started) not much exposition beyond this point is revealed. Subplots (in the Western version) are skimmed so quickly over that you don’t really get to know anyone; even in the Asian version many characters are omitted from a suitable backstory.

You could argue that by stating “I couldn’t differentiate one person from another” I was being racist. I don’t feel this is the case due to what is unmistakenly a difficult naming period. What with all of the Zhou Yu’s and Zhao Yun’s I felt very much confused for at least half of the film. This identification difficulty was helped somewhat by placing some characters in different colours (the man in white, as opposed to the man in yellow). Unfortunately during the film several colour (and hair) changes occur and confusion sets in again. How I would wish for name badges. If this were 2, then I would comment that all of the Decepticons look alike; no attempt at uniquely identifying the robots had been made. Is it racist to make the same observation with Red Cliff? Other than the hairy angry guy and the aforementioned paedophile, I was lost in translation.

Earlier this year I reviewed Australia and claimed that it to be the very opposite of the word “epic”. There is no question; that film is long but a long film does not an epic make. If Australia is the opposite of epic (nopic?) then Red Cliff is the very definition of it.


Production in the film is simply top notch with beautiful scene cuts (literally slicing through a canvas) and a set that makes you wow  in awe every time you see it onscreen. Fights consist of mostly stabbing, dancing, spinning (along with the oddly small amount of wirework) and the odd explosion or two. There are the now-famous dove scenes (in a John Woo film) which manage to take you on a journey from allies to enemy and even the formations of soldiers are impressive.

John Woo has achieved something truly memorable and I’ll admit to preferring the Asian released two-part edition as opposed to the one-part Western. If you are going to watch an epic battle, it might as well last over 4 hours long. Watching the Asian version though will need persistence as it is a very slow starter and without knowing how good it gets, you may be tempted to give up. Don’t! The wait is worth it.


A magnificent spectacle of Asian filmmaking that shows John Woo is still worthy of great recognition. Sadly this epic is somewhat let down by the lack of emotion and interplay between characters. If anything though, Red Cliff manages to promote a video game that ’t changed in nearly 12 years: I’m off to play Dynasty Warriors!

Rating: 4 out of 5

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