Red Cliff Review

The Film

I can say little of a positive nature about John Woo's career in Hollywood. It seems to me that after the success of Face Off, the director became the go to guy for outlandish thrillers. A succession of worthless B-movie scripts have been given the Woo kitchen sink treatment that could not prevent them from being rank awful. When he decided to return home to make this historical epic on review, it felt like an intervention had taken place and I was relieved that a fine artist may get the chance to create something of value again.

It hasn't been plain sailing though. Casting difficulties, rumours of all sorts of problems, and dead stuntmen have given the impression that Woo may be heading for a fall. And when it emerged that the film would be in two parts, and be over 4 hours in length, further doubts set in. Watching the first part now, it's easy to say that Red Cliff is the kind of project that Woo's mentor made in his pomp and that he would have been proud of completing. I feel that Chang Cheh would have coveted this epic historical tale of chivalry and that Woo has won over the circumstances that beset him.
Thematically, Red Cliff covers the strife that is part of nation building, like much recent Chinese cinema, but it is a basic tale of heroic brothers uniting against a venal foe. The first part comes in at a leisurely 145 minutes and deals with the forming of alliances against the conniving Prime Minister Cao Cao and the early skirmishes of his conflict with the heroic regional armies he tries to crush.

Woo gives us fantastic battles, his regulation slowmo and many, many shows of selfless honour. Applying himself to the story, he is even restrained enough to wait almost two hours before he uses a symbolic dove, and he even includes his first proper female character. A woman who doesn't loyally wait for her man or sacrifice herself for him, a woman who actually fights and pricks the male pomposity around her. Her existence here is such a revelation that I can forgive the inclusion of far more recognizable demure obedient women in the usual Woo mode.

Don't let me mislead you though, this is a film for men and about men. Masculinity is celebrated in its every noble act, and man on man love is shown to be the greatest love of all. This is the kind of love that expresses itself in back slapping and warm handshakes rather than man juice, mind you. After all, these are macho men who keep the world safe and built upon trustworthy love your brother harmony. Each of the leading men's valour is tested and they each win the right to be part of this virtuous brotherhood.
The male kinship is clearly a Woo concern from his earlier films, but what is rather novel is the technical and historical thinking which is shown in the battles. Corey Yuen's fight choreography doesn't rely on mystical leaps or outré weapons, and even if the wire work is occasionally more poetic than realistic, this is gritty stuff. The main battle of the film which involves trapping Cao Cao's cavalry in a series of tortoise formations, is full of practical and unpleasant horse and man hobbling. Quite unlike the recent operatic battles of wu xias, Woo and Yuen opt for some down and dirty scrapping. War in this film is all unsporting tricks and organised barbarity.

The earthy action is reflected in the acting and storyline. The cast include some caricatures but the main players give restrained and earnest performances, only coming to life in the fighting. Woo is very respectful to his material and clearly his heroes are ones that he venerates himself.
This all leaves the film as a huge improvement for Woo. It's not as graceful as other recent epics from China, although the use of CGI is as occasionally questionable as Zhang Yimou's has been. Its not as much fun as Ronny Yu's Fearless, but it is thoroughly involving and sumptuously produced. It builds a pretty high expectation for the conclusive part due next year.

I doubt that you'll be disappointed by Red Cliff as this is Woo back with brothers and heroic bloodshed on a colossal scale. This is after all what he, like his mentor before him, has always done best.

Transfer and Sound

The AVC encoded transfer framed at 2.35:1 is a thing of some beauty. Incredibly detailed and sharp, and often in danger of showing up the digital effects, colour is given a dusty historical hue with a brownish tone. Contrast is superbly delivered with plenty of shadow detail apparent, and my only real criticism of the video quality is that the image does seem rather processed. As my system allows me to work around it, the flashing of a HD logo courtesy of Mei Ah every 15 to 30 minutes didn't annoy me as much as it will others, but on its own this will discourage many from buying the disc.
The audio offers three HD options with LPCM, TrueHD, and DTS HD MA tracks. All of them down mixed on my system, but in their lower tech variants I enjoyed the immense clarity and vitality of the Master Audio track with a tremendous sub-woofer channel and well engineered use of the space and dimension of all channels. In the midst of the battles or the palaces or boats, the sound creates excellent atmosphere, and with the rollicking score it's pretty difficult not to get caught up in the momentum and the swirl of it all. The included English subtitles are very good with few grammatical slip ups.

Discs and Special Features

This is a dual layer disc with the main film taking up a whopping 39.9GB of the 43.4GB capacity. Unfortunately the wealth of interviews and featurettes presented here are in fact without English options, so my run-down of them is merely a list of what they seem to be. You'll find greater detail in the side panel, but there are a lot of very short interviews, footage of premieres, press conferences and basic promotional stuff such as the trailer and a picture gallery featuring 50 images from the film and its production. The video pieces all are encoded in AVC/MPEG 4 and seem to be in stereo. As for what anyone was saying, well, there, I haven't the foggiest.


Lacking English subs on the extras but with and excellent transfer, this may be just the ticket for the impatient Woo fan. Remember that the intermittent logo is a real drawback if you can't re-work your screen area and may completely ruin the film for some. Do check it out with our good friends at Yesasia if you like an Asian epic or look forward to Woo returning to form.

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