John Woo's Red Cliff is the latest in the recent trend of Hong Kong epics that seemed to have been kickstarted a few years back with the release of Hero. In Woo's capable hands, however, this proves to be far more than just a bunch of beautifully shot battle scenes, CGI combat sequences and beautiful costumes. Here the plot is a strong one, the characters are well developed (though not as developed as they should be - for more on that see the Note paragraph!) and to top it all off, it's based on a very interesting part of Chinese history. On top of that, if such things matter to you, Red Cliff (at the time of this writing) holds the record for the most expensive film ever made in Asia, with a budget reported at over eight million dollars. Thankfully for the backers, the film proved to be box office gold in its homeland and had no trouble making its money back and earning the producers a very tidy profit indeed.
Set at the end of the Han Dynasty, the film begins when the Prime Minister, Cao Cao (Fengyi Zhang), uses his influence to convince the inexperienced Han emperor to wage war against a group of rebels who are rising up against him in the southern part of the country. In the south, there are two military warlord types. The first is the older and wiser Liu Bei (Yong You) and the second is the younger and less experienced Sun Quan (Chen Chang). They decide to work together and pool their resources to stop Cao Cao's forces from invading and taking control of the area. Sun Quan's man in charge of the military is Zhou You (Tony Leung) who will be working alongside Bei's military strategy man, Kongming (Takeshi Kaneshiro) to figure out how their vastly outnumbered troops will be able to stand a snowball's chance in Hell against Cao Cao's military might. As one thing leads to another and the conflict builds, a final battle is set to take place near the titular Red Cliff.
Going into much more detail would spoil the fun, the splendor and the excitement that John Woo has managed to build with this epic cinematic achievement. Those accustomed to his more intimate and better known bullet ballet pictures like The Killer and Hardboiled may find themselves floored by just how grand a vision he manages to put up on the screen with this picture. This is closer to something like Kurosawa's Ran than to something like Bullet In The Head but those 'Woo moments' that fans appreciate are still there and his stamp is all over this picture.
There are, as seems to be the case with all cinematic epics, moments in the film that feel ridden with clichés but somehow they fight in amongst the spectacle and grandiose set pieces. Woo makes great use of his talented cast, with Tony Leung and Takashi Kaneshiro really shining in their respective roles. Both have this really interesting sense of nobility to what they're doing but never take it so far so as to make their character unbelievable. The rest of the cast are also quite strong and very good with the material, but the two leads tend to steal the show more often than not.
Of course, anyone who has seen a John Woo film will know that the real scene stealers are going to be the combat sequences. Woo's obvious passion for the source material shines through and you can tell that he's really tried to bring the levity and importance of the situation and the impact that it had on his homeland to the screen properly. This does come through with the dramatic aspects but it's more than likely the spectacular battle sequences that'll stick with you. They're as violent as they need to be without going over the top and they're simultaneously horrifying and glorious. Emotions run thick in this film, and Woo uses his penchant for filming violence with operatic results to work that angle. It's a testament to his skill and to his passion for filmmaking and in many ways it is a masterpiece but for one really big caveat...
Now, about this North American theatrical version of the film contained on the Blu-ray disc sent for review. When Red Cliff was originally released in China, it was as a two part film that ran a massive two hundred and eighty minutes. The film was then edited down to the one hundred and forty eight minute version that we have here and released theatrically in the United States, Canada and other territories where it enjoyed a limited theatrical release. It should stand to reason that with roughly one hundred and thirty two minutes chopped out of the picture, that it's a very different film. It's obvious as you watch it, even if you haven't seen it before, that a lot of character development has been trimmed and that even some of the amazingly epic battles sequences have been chopped down. As a standalone film, this version isn't bad but at the same time, if you're enjoying what you're watching you'll find that it does leave you wanting more and you'll probably wind up wanting to see the longer version anyway. Logic would dictate, then, that it makes more sense to skip this version and go straight to the full length version, which Magnolia has also made available on Blu-ray (though puzzlingly not supplied review copies of). The star rating assigned in this review refers only to the cut of the film on this DVD. The two part uncut version would definitely have scored much higher.
Red Cliff looks very impressive in AVC encoded 1080p 2.35.1 anamorphic widescreen. Color reproduction is often striking without ever looking overdone while flesh tones look lifelike and natural. There's loads of detail for eagle eyed viewers to marvel over in the costumes and sets that are used throughout the film while texture remains rich and intricate. The image is always clean and clear and there are no noticeable problems with mpeg compression artifacts, edge enhancement or digital scrubbing. The image looks very strong throughout, showing good contrast and solid black levels and really leaving very little to complain about. This transfer is, by all accounts, quite excellent.
Audio options are supplied in the film's native Chinese language and in an English language dubbed track, both in 48 kHz DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio with subtitles offered in English, English SDH and Spanish. Unless you've got a strong aversion to subtitles, opt for the Chinese language track as the English dubbed mix doesn't fit the film nearly as well and comes across as fake and forced. The sound quality on it is fine but it doesn't have the authenticity of the original language mix. Regardless of which option you choose, however, things sound pretty decent even if the audio isn't as impressive as the video is here. The battle scenes are as active and aggressive as you'd expect them to be, with all manner of effect s spread out nicely throughout the surround channels and bringing plenty of fun and excitement to these scenes. The more dramatic scenes, those quieter spots in the film, these aren't quite as impressive and there are times where dialogue seems a bit lower than it could have been. That complaint aside however, things sound pretty good here - just not perfect.
The biggest and best of the extras on the disc is a making of featurette that clocks in at two and a half hours, but it's unfortunately presented in non-anamorphic widescreen. English subtitles are automatically supplied when needed. As lengthy as this is, it could have actually been more in-depth than it is. It certainly covers a lot of ground and allows Woo to talk about what he was going for as far as his portrayal of heroics and honor (often a theme in his films) are concerned, but more historical information, though there is some, would have been welcome. Up next is an interesting interview with John Woo directed by Leo Quinones, which is presented in high definition. It covers some of the same ground as the featurette but also allows Woo to elaborate on other aspects of filmmaking and his career in general so it's a welcome addition.
Rounding out the extras is an HDNet spot, also in HD, which is essentially a glorified trailer designed to promote the film, and a collection of almost one hundred storyboard images. Menus, chapter stops and trailers for a few other Magnolia/Magnet DVD and Blu-ray releases bring the supplements to a close.
This is a tricky release to recommend not because of any problems with it but because the very same company has released the longer, uncut version on Blu-ray as well. As you watch this you can't help but notice that parts of the story seem choppy and cut short and this does take away from the experience. Granted, there are people out there who will probably, and quite understandably, opt for the shorter version rather than the mammoth two-parter but as many of us feel that films should be seen in their full length, uncut form whenever possible, this obviously truncated cut feels incomplete. To Magnolia's credit, they've done a fine job on the transfer and a decent job on the audio and the extras as well, but it's impossible to wholeheartedly recommend an edited cut of Woo's epic production. Rent it if you're curious or can't commit to the longer version for whatever reason, otherwise skip it and get the two disc set that Magnolia offers instead.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.