Red Cliff

Genre: War drama, historical
Origin: Chinese
Length: 2.5 hours (or 5 hours in the uncut version)
Rating: 15 for violence (and a little bit of sex)
Score: Very good

The prime minister Cao Cao has the Emperor under his thumb, and has conquered most of the warlords opposing him. The remaining two armies, those of Lui Bei and Sun Quan, form an alliance and wait for him at Chibi (Red Cliffs), a fort on one bank of Yangtze river. Cao Cao’s massive army and navy camp on the opposite bank and prepare to launch their assault.

This epic, depicting the events leading up to the famous Battle of Chibi in 208 AD, was originally released in two parts, totally nearly five hours – the cut released in western cinemas is a more manageable two and a half hours. I’ve only seen the western cut, so I can’t comment on the differences. The cut was made well, though it was clear that some events had been glossed over. It’s often compared to Lord of the Rings, not just in format but in scope, subject matter and style; with the crucial difference that it’s based on historical events. While it concentrates on the personalities of the key people whose decisions move armies, the visual scope of the massive final battle is staggering.

Untangling fact from centuries of romantic fiction to produce something that is recognisable and reasonably accurate, while also being intelligible and entertaining, is a difficult job. The film avoids making the subject overly romantic, cutting through legends and magic to deliver about as realistic a telling as is possible from the remaining documents.

This is a very violent film, but all of the violence is strategic and placed in its vital context. After setting the wider context, most of the film explores the many factors that lead into the battle: information, morale, technology, politics, terrain, organisation and emotion. The strategies depicted range from merely clever and insightful through to sheer genius.

The main dynamic of the film is between Zhuge Liang, a strategist working for Lui Bei, and the young lord Sun Quan. The way in which Zhuge Liang’s calm, zen attitude and peaceful insight lead him to see deeper into the game of war than the arrogrant Cao Cao, despite the latter’s intelligence and power, could be seen as the film’s main message.

I’d quite like to see the full version to see for myself what the differences are. Not everyone will have the stomach for that, but I recommend the western release as a good compromise for those not familiar with the legends.