In 208 AD, Chancellor Cao Cao(Zhang Fengyi) forces the Emperor Xian of Han Dynasty to give him command of the Imperial army to suppress the southern warlords Liu Bei(Yao Yung) and Sun Quan(Chang Chen). According to Cao Cao, these southern warlords are rebels who ought to be dealt with force. After obtaining the permission from the Emperor using strong arm tactics, Cao Cao sets southwards with the Imperial Army. Very soon, Liu Bei’s army struggles to fend off the massive army of Cao Cao. Cao Cao’s army does not distinguish between civilian and military during their attacks. Zhuge Liang(Takeshi Kaneshiro), the chief strategist of Liu Bei, advises on an alliance with Sun Quan. Sun Quan is already tired with the repeated defeats and massive losses in casualty.
Zhuge Liang visit Sun Quan to put forth the idea of alliance against Cao Cao. All Sun Quan’s advisors are against a war with Cao Cao. But Sun Quan tells Zhuge Liang that he will need a day to think it over. While Zhuge Liang waits for an answer, he pays a visit to the Grand Viceroy Zhou Yu(Tony Leung).There, Zhuge Liang and Zhou Yu becomes friends. Now, Zhuge Liang is confident that Zhou Yu will influence the decision of Sun Quan in the favor of an alliance. As expected by Zhuge Liang, Sun Quan agrees for an alliance. Even after the alliance, Cao Cao have superior power. To make matters worse, Cao Cao has already reached the outskirts of Red Cliff with his mighty navy. His ground troops are almost there. How the combined intelligence of Zhuge Liang and Zhou Yu thwart the superior power of Cao Cao’s army forms the rest of the story.
John Woo directs this war movie based on the real Battle of Red Cliffs. John Woo gives a spectacular recital of history showcasing the ruthlessness of Cao Cao and the resourcefulness of Zhuge Liang and Zhou Yu. He focuses on the working relationship between the two key players Zhuge Liang and Zhou Yu to tell us how the battle was won. Although the movie starts with the traditional Chinese technique of fast zooming on the key players to heighten the drama, it quickly falls back into using the cinematic techniques popularized by John Woo. There are slow motion scenes to make the viewer enjoy a great shot longer. Similarly, there are back and forth cuts between two events happening at the same time at two locations with the camera zooming slowly and steadily onto the actors during the cuts Yes, there are sequences featuring the John Woo trademarks - the pigeon and the Mexican standoff! But the battle sequences are the major highlights of the movie. The CG in these scenes are a letdown. But the different formations by the cavalry is filmed in such a way that even a layman understands the formation clearly and also it’s advantages. When Cao Cao’s navy suffers a defeat, the viewer is very clear on the reasons.
All the performances are good. The notable ones are Tony Leung’s Zhou Yu and Takeshi Kaneshiro’s Zhuge Liang. One scene alone is enough to showcase the talent of Tony Leung. When one of his trusted man dies after breaching a hole in the wall during the climax, Tony’s Zhou Yu smiles for a second and then the smile is immediately replaced with a melancholic look. He is happy about the hole in the wall which is the main objective but he is not happy about the cost he had to pay for the same! Throughout the movie, Tony’s Zhou Yu is calm which is inline with the character. Takeshi Kaneshiro’s Zhuge Liang is a strategist. He has to remain calm throughout. He accomplishes it with a smile that displays inner peace.
This is a must see for anyone who loves Chinese movies or war movies. There are two versions of this movie – Mandarin Full version in two parts and English (International) version in condensed form. If you have a choice, go for the Mandarin Full version. I watched the English version and was able to detect continuity problems.