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Red Cliff II
Red Cliff II     Red Cliff II

(left) Lin Chiling and Tony Leung Chiu-Wai, and (right) You Yong and Takeshi Kaneshiro in Red Cliff.
Chinese: 赤壁 - 決戰天下  
AKA: The Battle of Red Cliff 2  
Year: 2009  
Director: John Woo  
  Writer: John Woo, Chen Han, Sheng Heyu
  Action: Corey Yuen Kwai, Dion Lam Dik-On
  Cast: Tony Leung Chiu-Wai, Takeshi Kaneshiro, Zhang Fengyi, Chang Chen, Vicki Zhao Wei, Hu Jun, Lin Chi-Ling, Shido Nakamura, You Yong, Song Jia, Tong Dawei, Hou Yong, Ba Sen Zha Bu, Zang Jinsheng, Zhang Shan, Shi Xiaohong, He Yin
  The Skinny: Worth the six month wait. Red Cliff II improves upon nearly everything in Red Cliff, offering better action, acting, emotions and entertainment. Easily the best movie John Woo has made in ten years. While that may sound like a backhanded compliment, the straight skinny is this: Red Cliff II is pretty damn good.
by Kozo:

It needed to be better and it is. John Woo knocks one out of the park with Red Cliff II, besting the solid but somewhat underwhelming Red Cliff I and delivering an enormously entertaining spectacle that should please mass audiences and the John Woo faithful. Who won't be pleased? Probably the people who think that John Woo only equals gunplay, or those who find his particular brand of cinematic romanticism to be the height of unintentional hilarity. To be fair, Red Cliff II contains moments that could cause giggles, but they're simply a side effect of Woo's pronounced themes of brotherhood, and indeed the homoeroticism actually makes the film more enjoyable. More than anything, Red Cliff II works because it feels like a John Woo film, and builds effectively towards an exciting and entertaining finish. Neither film is an instant classic, their commercialism and obvious execution making it difficult to immediately label them such. Given time, however, the two Red Cliff films may yet be seen as popular art par excellence.

At the end of Red Cliff I, power-hungry Prime Minister Cao Cao (Zhang Fengyi) was set to attack the Shu-Wu Coalition camped out at the port of Red Cliff. Cao Cao is confident and rightly so; his numbers are superior, and his initial move - sending diseased corpses to Red Cliff - reduces morale and thins his enemy's ranks. Fearing the end for his people, Shu General Liu Bei (You Yong) retreats, taking with him trusted lieutenants Zhao Yun (Hu Jun), Guan Yu (Ba Sen Zha Bu), and Zhang Fei (Zang Jingsheng). That leaves Wu leader Sun Quan (Chang Chen) and his people manning Red Cliff, with the only Shu holdover being strategist Zhuge Liang (Takeshi Kaneshiro), who refuses to leave things undone. With knowing smiles and twinkling eyes, Zhuge Liang and Wu strategist Zhou Yu (Tony Leung Chiu-Wau) react to this crisis like any sane men would: they compete with one another to see if they can each fulfill impossible tasks. Zhuge Liang must produce 100,000 arrows in three days, while Zhou Yu must arrange for the death of Cao Cao's naval captains. The price for failure? Beheading.

Betting on such impossible odds with your own head sounds foolhardy, but that's simply how John Woo's romantic heroes joust and parry with one another. Zhou Yu and Zhuge Liang show a nearly uncomfortable amount of admiration and respect for one another. And yet, they're also rivals who know that one day they may be foes. The actual Three Kingdoms lore bears out this eventuality, giving that onscreen relationship an ironic edge, but John Woo seems to be less concerned with the past or the future than with the now. Themes of brotherhood, friendship, and honor were already present in Three Kingdoms, but Woo takes them and runs wild, amping them up dramatically while making the characters and situations his own. In his hands, the Three Kingdoms seems only a stone's throw from the thematic excesses of The Killer or A Better Tomorrow. Chow Yun-Fat would have been right at home here.

Compared to the first Red Cliff, this second part moves much quicker, dispensing with backstory and going straight to the strategy and action. While Zhuge Liang and Zhou Yu devise clever ways to achieve their impossible tasks, Sun Xiang-Shang (Vicki Zhao) sneaks behind enemy lines, spying on Cao Cao's forces while also making an unwitting friend (Tong Dawei). When the eve of the battle finally arrives, everything seems aligned in Cao Cao's favor - most especially the wind, which makes a fire attack a bad idea for the Coalition. However, Zhuge Liang can apparently read the weather, and surmises that the wind will change in their favor. The trick then becomes waiting until the right time to attack, and the build-up is surprisingly engrossing. Woo uses his celebrated bag of tricks (freeze frames, dissolves, romantic montage, artful slow-motion) to create tension and emotion, with time-outs for some reverent acknowledgement of brotherhood and honor. It's all very inspiring in a cornball cinema kind of way, but this is John Woo's world and by the time he rolls out his old tropes, he's seemingly earned them. His technique is transparent, but he gets his desired emotional effect.

It's great that Woo can fall back on his old tricks, since many were previously deemed inappropriate for cynical Hollywood audiences. Ironically, one Woo signifier that he did squeeze into his Hollywood work - those damn white pigeons - is present here too, but the birds actually have a narrative function. Woo's use of women is also somewhat novel (at least for him). Vicki Zhao's Sun Shang-Xiang plays a large part, and makes a point of showing that her sex shouldn't be an issue. She also spends a good deal of the film in drag, and gets in on some of that John Woo homoeroticism herself - details that could prove ample fodder for gender film theorists who like to give Woo the raised eyebrow. However, there's also Lin Chi-Ling's Xiao Qiao, who seemed in danger of becoming Red Cliff's Helen of Troy, what with the indications that Cao Cao was going to war for her. That motivation is never truly confirmed, but it does offer Xiao Qiao a chance to get involved, as she plays a very key - and surprisingly tense - role in the final battle. Only a flower vase in the first film, Lin Chi-Ling does quite a bit more this time.

The action is also stronger this time. In Red Cliff I, the audience was treated to a strategic depiction of war with occasional pauses for supercool martial arts hero action. Those martial arts heroes are back; Hu Jun rules as Zhao Yun, making Andy Lau's take on the character in Three Kingdoms: Resurrection of the Dragon seem like, well, just Andy Lau. Also, the battles are more chaotic and emotional than the clinical battlefield dissections of the original. Woo pulls out all the stops for the fire attack finale, as the battle moves from sea to land, with moments of strategy, self-sacrifice, friendship and brotherhood dotting each scene like required punctuation. The sequence is a long haul, but it's never droning, as the battle shows clear progression, with all the elements coming together until the main characters finally meet face-to-face as either foes or friends. Anyone who's seen a John Woo movie knows how this should end - with some variation on the classic Mexican standoff - and Woo doesn't disappoint. What's surprising is how he manages to keep the emotions strong until the very end.

Red Cliff I featured an old-school portrayal of war as necessary and even honorable, but in Red Cliff II one character does utter the hackneyed words, "There are no winners here." The words are true but unnecessary, and could easily have been excised. The stronger theme in Red Cliff is not that war produces no winners, but that those who practice treachery, dishonor and naked ambition should be brought down simply because it's the right thing to do. The characters in Red Cliff seem to live this mantra, giving up life and limb not for pride or gain, but simply to stop a megalomaniac from having his way. Like the best John Woo works, Red Cliff delivers theme and character through action, and finds places on the battlefield for characters to reveal themselves for who they are. Nothing is new in the details, but how and when they come to light prove to be entertaining and even affecting. Friendship and honor rule all in Red Cliff, and even wartime allegiances are of lesser importance.

Three Kingdoms purists may be upset with the liberties taken with the source material, but hopefully they'll still be able to enjoy Red Cliff II for its entertainment value. Besides the solid direction and fine technical credits, the actors are better this time around. Tony Leung is still conspicuously dubbed, but his performance is solid, and the strong ensemble cast aids him. In particular, Zhang Fengyi's Cao Cao makes a stronger impression than in the previous film, and Takeshi Kaneshiro now seems more comfortable as Zhuge Liang, imbuing the character with a knowing, righteous charm. In general, everyone seems to have grown into their roles, each handling their iconic characters with pronounced, but still playful seriousness. Still, it's not the actors but Woo who's the star, and he comes through, managing to make his common and even clichéd themes matter. If Red Cliff I showed promise then Red Cliff II delivers with strong, entertaining authority. This is John Woo on a grand canvas, but despite the bigger budget and the larger scale, the film still feels like a personal one. Red Cliff II easily marks the best thing that Woo has done in over a decade, and hopefully is a sign of things to come. Given the lean Windtalkers/Paycheck years - and the resigned feeling that came with them - I'm just glad I'm alive to see this happen. (Kozo 2009)

  Availability: DVD (Hong Kong)
Region 0 NTSC
Mei Ah Entertainment
16x9 Anamorphic Widescreen
Mandarin Language Track
Dolby Digital 5.1 / DTS 5.1
Removable English and Chinese Subtitles
*Also Available on Blu-ray Disc
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image credits: Mei Ah Entertainment Copyright ©2002-2017 Ross Chen