Asian Drama Fever

Movie: Red Cliff (赤壁)

Posted on: August 4, 2008

Other than the fact that it’s based significantly on the Chinese story of the Three Kingdoms, Red Cliff is your typical epic movie. I estimated that 40% of the scenes are on the battle field and 30% didn’t make any sense to me. I spent a lot time waiting for the 300-like battle scenes to end and the plot to progress. This is a very long time spent considering how long the movie was. I’m even more surprised to find that I’ve only watched Part I.

Despite my distaste with the prolonged fight scenes, I really liked this movie. The cast is wonderful, again the male roles dominating the female. Tony Leung from Lust, Caution playing a convincing and admirable general. Takeshi Kaneshiro (金城 武) previously appearing in House of Flying Daggers is Zhuge Liang, a cunning strategist for the good guys. As for the villain, Cao Cao (I italicize villain since Cao Cao is a hero in other stories, it’s just for this movie that he is the villain), Zhang Fengyi does a great job portraying his passion and his heartlessness.

As for the females: the production crew managed to make Lin Chi Ling, a famous Taiwanese model, look like your average girl, and Zhao Wei’s hairstyle and dress make her look twice her age! I won’t go into more details about the characters or the plot (which you can read below) since I don’t have a great grasp on all that history. I do question how western audiences will be able to distinguish the two battling sides! The men, except for Zhuge Liang, all dress in dark armor and the flags carry Chinese characters. Not to the mention a plethora of minor characters who appear randomly on the battle field.

Lastly, I couldn’t help notice the resemblance between the set for the Red Cliff and the many strongholds in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, especially the one that was under siege. Please excuse my lack of LOTR trivia knowledge.

See English Trailer. Watch the entire movie on Crunchyroll! With English Subtitles too!

Interesting facts:

  • Director John Woo said in an interview with CCTV-6 that the film will use primarily the historical record Chronicle of the Three Kingdoms as a blueprint for the Battle of Red Cliffs, rather than the historical novel Romance of the Three Kingdoms. As such, traditionally vilified characters such as Cao Cao and Zhou Yu will be given a more historically accurate treatment in the film.
  • Red Cliff is to be released in two parts totaling over four hours in length, with the first part premiering in July 2008 and the second in January 2009. Outside of Asia, a single 2½ hour film will be released in January 2009.
  • With an estimated budget of US$80 million, Red Cliff is the most expensive Asian-financed film to date. (Source)

Basic Historical Background

In 208 A.D., in the final days of the Han Dynasty, shrewd Prime Minster Cao Cao convinced the fickle Emperor Han the only way to unite all of China was to declare war on the kingdoms of Xu in the west and East Wu in the south. Thus began a military campaign of unprecedented scale, led by the Prime Minister, himself. Left with no other hope for survival, the kingdoms of Xu and East Wu formed an unlikely alliance. Numerous battles of strength and wit ensued, both on land and on water, eventually culminating in the battle of Red Cliff. During the battle, two thousand ships were burned, and the course of Chinese history was changed forever. (Source)

Plot of Episode 1

The film opens with a scene in the Imperial Court of the Han Dynasty in Xuchang in the summer AD 208. The Prime Minister Cao Cao requests for the Emperor Xian‘s permission to launch a campaign against the warlords Liu Bei and Sun Quan in southern China, whom he considered to be rebels against the Han Dynasty. The Emperor hesitated, but reluctantly agreed after Cao Cao spoke of his contributions and loyalty to the Han Dynasty (rescuing the Emperor when he was in exile, uniting northern China). A court official Kong Rong openly challenged Cao Cao, denouncing him as a traitor with the intention of usurping the throne. Kong also claimed that Liu Bei and Sun Quan had no intentions of rebelling, especially when the former was the Emperor’s uncle. Subsequently, Kong Rong was executed and Cao Cao was put in command of the Imperial Army and set forth on his campaign.

Cao Cao’s mighty army conquered the southern lands with the force and speed equivalent to that of a tidal wave sweeping over the shore. Meanwhile, Liu Bei had abandoned the city of Xinye and was leading his army and civilians who were unwilling to be under Cao Cao’s rule on an exodus. However, Cao Cao’s calvary caught up with Liu Bei and a great battle ensued near Changban. Zhang Fei, sworn brother of Liu Bei, had personally led a small group of soldiers armed with reflective shields to hold off the enemy while buying time for the civilians to escape. As the enemy soldiers approached, Zhang’s troops used their shields to reflect sunlight into the eyes of the enemy’s horses, throwing them into chaos and seizing the opportunity to strike back. At the same time, Zhao Yun set off in search of Liu Bei’s wives and son, whom were separated amidst the chaos. Zhao Yun found Lady Mi, who was desperately trying to protect the infant Liu Shan from being seized by enemy soldiers. She was severely wounded and commited suicide by drowning herself in a well after entrusting Liu Shan to Zhao Yun. Zhao Yun fought bravely and managed to break out after being surrounded by the enemy.

At the same time, Zhuge Liang, Liu Bei’s chief advisor, managed to bring Guan Yu, sworn brother of Liu Bei, to assist Zhang Fei. Zhao Yun, Zhang Fei and Guan Yu bravely held off the enemy until the last group of civilians had evacuated. Guan Yu stayed on alone to hold off the enemy and was surrounded by several enemy soldiers. He threw his halberd towards Cao Cao, barely missing the latter by an inch. Later, Cao Cao gave orders to let Guan Yu off, saying that Guan Yu could have killed him earlier but decided to spare him.

After the battle at Changban, Zhuge Liang set forth for Wu on a diplomatic mission to negotiate for an alliance between Liu Bei and Sun Quan. Sun Quan was in the midst of a dilemma, unsure whether to oppose Cao Cao or surrender. His advisors had been desperately trying to persuade him to surrender, while his military officers were advocating war. Zhuge Liang urged Sun Quan to form the alliance with Liu Bei against Cao Cao, but Sun Quan replied by putting his hand on Zhuge Liang’s shoulder and saying that he needed more time to think about it. Lu Su then brought Zhuge Liang to meet Wu’s great viceroy and chief commander of Wu’s army Zhou Yu. Zhou Yu was busy training his troops at Chi Bi with Gan Ning. Zhuge Liang had a short discussion with Zhou Yu about war. A scene was featured in which Zhou Yu demonstrated his appreciation for music and the strong discipline enforced in his army.

Later, Zhou Yu went home where his horse had just given birth to a foal. His wife Xiao Qiao was overjoyed as though she had a child of her own. Zhuge Liang and Zhou Yu had a music duet in which their ideas were conveyed by playing the zither. Through their performance, Zhuge Liang understood that Zhou Yu supported war against Cao Cao. Meanwhile in Cao Cao’s camp, he had just recruited two new generals named Cai Mao and Zhang Yun, both of whom were surrendered generals and well-versed in naval warfare. At the same time, Cao Cao also boasted of his army’s might and expressed his desire to possess the beautiful Xiao Qiao. At the same time, Sun Quan had finally made up his decision to form an alliance with Liu Bei and launch a war against Cao Cao after a tiger hunt. He drew his sword and sliced off a corner of the table, saying to his subjects, “Whoever who speaks of surrender shall end up like this table!” Sun Quan appointed Zhou Yu, Lu Su and Cheng Pu as the main commanders of his army.

Zhou Yu and his generals went on a tour of Liu Bei’s camp, exchanging ideas and having insights into Liu Bei’s army. They formulated a plan to engage Cao Cao’s army, which was moving towards Wu on both land and water. The first battle started, with Sun Shangxiang, Sun Quan’s younger sister, luring Cao Cao’s vanguard army into the Eight Triagrams Formation, where Cao’s army was utterly defeated by the allied forces. Cao Cao learnt of the defeat, but showed no disappointment at all. He proceeded to lead to his army to camp on the opposite side of the river, directly facing the allied army’s camp at Chi Bi. At the same time, the allied forces were throwing a banquet to celebrate their victory.

Zhou Yu and Zhuge Liang had a discussion on the new plan to combat Cao Cao’s forces. Zhou Yu stated that Cao Cao’s next move was still unclear although they had scored a victory against Cao Cao’s vanguard army. Zhou Yu then said to Zhuge Liang that he hoped they would not become enemies in the future, and if that is so, they would each serve their respective lords. By sending a pigeon he had cared for the past few days to scout Cao Cao’s army, Zhuge Liang discovered the enemy’s formation. The film ends with Zhou Yu lighting his minature-sized ships on a map based on the battle formation with a torch.

The plot continues in episode 2. (Source)

4 Responses to "Movie: Red Cliff (赤壁)"

I don’t think this is targeting Western audience. I remember watching a series about the novel a long time ago in Vietnamese but I was still confused and my mom helped me caught up with the characters again when I watched Red Cliff. You gotta know a little bit about the history or the novel to truly appreciate the movie. The cast did an OK job but overall the fightings were not that great.

ooh I don’t know if you watch American tv but definitely check out Fringe and Knight Rider, the first episodes are available online. I totally love it.

Guess what? I tried to read Romance of the Three Kingdoms in Chinese when I ran into a copy. It is impossible for someone like me who lacks the skills to comprehend dated literature in another language.

Very Interesting post! Thank you for such interesting resource!
PS: Sorry for my bad english, I’v just started to learn this language 😉
See you!
Your, Raiul Baztepo

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