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Chinese history in the 2nd and 3rd Century, during which China split into three kingdoms following the fall of Han Dynasty, and after decades of war and peace, reunified under a new dynasty: Jin.
For more about Red Cliff and the Red Cliff Blu-ray release, see the Red Cliff Blu-ray Review
Starring: Tony Leung Chiu-Wai, Takeshi Kaneshiro, Zhang Fengyi, Chang Chen, Vicky Zhao
Director: John Woo
» See full cast & crew
Red Cliff Blu-ray Review
Reviewed by Dr. Svet Atanasov, October 19, 2009
John Woo's epic "Red Cliff" (2008/2009) arrives on Blu-ray courtesy of British distributors Entertainment in Video. This double set contains the film's 286-minute version. A shorter version of the film, running at approximately 147 minutes, is also being distributed by Entertainment in Video. With imposed English subtitles. Region-Free (please see our technical analysis as there are certain limitations with this release that could potentially affect viewers residing in Region-A territories).
The last days of the Han Dynasty. General Cao Cao (Fengyi Zhang) has gathered a massive 800 000 army in the wealthy North. He is planning to oust the leaders of the smaller Shu and Wu states in the South where the will of the weak Emperor is apparently questioned. Realizing that the Shu state will not be able to withstand a possible attack by Cao Cao's troops, Zhuge Liang (Takeshi Kaneshiro), a military strategist and naturalist, asks the leader of the Wu state, Sun Quan (Chen Chang), to join forces with Shu. Sun Quan agrees and the armies of Shu and Wu gather at the strategic Red Cliff on the Yangtze River. Displeased by the news that the two Southern states have joined forces, General Cao Cao orders his army to attack Red Cliff.
After reaching a cult status in his native Hong Kong during the early 80s, action guru John Woo came to Hollywood. More or less, the plan was to popularize his flashy style amongst Western viewers while adding a brand new vibe to his work with a distinctively global appeal. Big name actors (John Travolta, Nicolas Cage, Christian Slater, and Tom Cruise) were to assure that success would arrive quickly.
But it wasn't meant to be. Despite strong studio backing, Face-Off (1997) and Mission Impossible II (2000) proved to be John Woo's only big hits and did little to maintain his cult image after a string of disappointing projects followed up – Windtalkers (2002), Paycheck (2003), The Robinsons-Lost in Space (2004), etc. It was time for a change.
Red Cliff, a massive project based on a true story, marks John Woo's return to what many believe is his forte - flashy, action-infused, cinema done with a touch of excess. The film recreates an important part of China's history where the kingdoms of the South clashed with the North in a much overdramatized by writers, video-game developers, and, as of late, film producers battle for superiority. Stylishly embellished and carefully lensed, Red Cliff also creates the impression of being a project meant to challenge some of the best entries other directors have introduced to the genre it belongs to (Tsui Hark's Once Upon a Time in China; Zhang Yimou's Hero).
As expected, Red Cliff boasts a distinctively epic atmosphere where multiple characters are involved in multiple substories. Romance, action, and drama are blended into a mesmerizing panorama of visuals many, especially fans of the genre, will find difficult to resist. The terrifically staged battle scenes, for example, certainly overshadow a great deal of what has been achieved by other HK directors, and I feel that Red Cliff could well be what rekindles John Woo's hurt career.
Structurally, however, Red Cliff is likely to present a few issues for Western audiences. The incredibly rich story relies on a number of characters that obviously play an important part in putting all of the scattered pieces of the script together. There are hidden feuds, unspoken arguments, and partially revealed historic "truths" that require one to pay very close attention if one is to fully appreciate what John Woo and team have delivered. So, be warned, Red Cliff is more than a glitzy action-extravaganza with easy to see through protagonists.
Finally, it would not be fare if I did not make it clear that the film does reveal some major flaws as well. As mentioned earlier, the story is so far reaching that occasionally it feels painfully protracted, effectively disrupting the comfortable pacing introduced during the opening twenty or so minutes. The large battle scenes (keep in mind that the second installment of Red Cliff is where the much hyped clash is to occur) are also notably overdone, and, as the story progresses, seem to affect one's ability to fully understand the key players and their thought processes.
The second installment in John Woo's Red Cliff begins exactly where the first one ended – at the camp of Prime Minister Cao Cao (Zhang Fengyi) where thousands of soldiers are getting ready to attack the rebels from the South. On the opposite end, General Zhou Yu (Tony Leung Chiu Wai) and his allies - Zhuge Liang (Takeshi Kaneshiro), Sun Quan (Chen Chang), Liu Bei (Yong You), Zhao Yun (Jun Hu) and Sun Quan (Chen Chang) – are discussing how to outmaneuver Cao Cao's formidable army.
While waiting for orders, many of the Northerners fall sick; a typhus epidemic breaks out and claims the lives of thousands of soldiers. Instead of cremating the infected bodies, however, Cao Cao orders that they are placed in large boats and sent to the enemy; the epidemic strikes the Southerners. Seeing his soldiers suffering and dying, Liu Bei and his commanders abandon General Zhou Yu and his troops. The news reaches Cao Cao's camp and he orders his army to prepare for an attack.
So, Red Cliff II is finally here! Having just seen it though, I find it difficult to predict how well the film will resonate with those of you who liked Red Cliff. Obviously, if you enjoyed the epic atmosphere from the first film, you will appreciate what John Woo and his team have cooked up in the second one. As far as character development is concerned, however, there are a number of unexpected changes that may disappoint some of you.
First, there is a major shift in Red Cliff II towards elaborating on specific themes (loyalty, brotherhood, honor) rather than further exploring key relationships that were introduced in Red Cliff. As a result, a lot of the drama is not as intense and intimate as it was in the first film.
Second, the editing is far less convincing. A lot of the key events leading to the final battle between the North and South armies are introduced as individual episodes that remind of prolonged, expertly produced but lacking substance MTV-esque videos. Especially during the first half of the film, the absence of a consistent rhythm hurts the narrative tremendously.
Third, Red Cliff II has been dramatically overpolished for mass consumption – the dialog in particular has been marred by a number of clichés that were not an issue of concern in the fist film - and this would certainly disappoint plenty of viewers. There is also a lot of posing (perhaps something that could not have been avoided given the all-star cast) that is completely out of sync with the events taking place on the screen.
Thankfully, the action – probably the only reason why some of you would want to see Red Cliff II to begin with – is indeed impossible not to admire. I won't go into detail so I do not spoil the ending of the film for you, but I would like to mention that the clash between the North and South armies certainly leaves little to the imagination.
Red Cliff Blu-ray, Video Quality
Presented in an aspect ratio of 2.35:1, encoded with MPEG-4 AVC and granted a 1080p transfer, John Woo's Red Cliff arrives on Blu-ray courtesy of British distributors Entertainment in Video. Please note that this is the Special Edition version of the film, running at approximately 286 minutes. The international, shorter version of Red Cliff, running at approximately 147 minutes, is also being sold on Blu-ray. The two versions have two very different covers.
The Blu-ray transfers for Red Cliff parts I and II look practically identical to the transfers Mei Ah delivered for the Hong Kong BD releases some time ago. The only tiny difference that I could spot between the two was in the color-scheme; the reds are perhaps just a tiny bit stronger on the Hong Kong transfers, while greens look slightly more prominent on the British transfers. Everything else, however, looks identical to me. Contrast is incredibly strong, detail fantastic and clarity very impressive. Furthermore, neither edge-enhancement nor macroblocking appear to be an issue of concern. There are absolutely no traces of heavy noise reduction either. The actual transfer is also notably healthy – there are no disturbing scratches, debris, dirt, or stains to report in this review.
Note: These are Region-Free Blu-ray discs. However, before one could access the main menu on disc I, one must go through a number of forced trailers. The second trailer is problematic - it is in PAL, and will likely force many viewers in North America to get the following message on their monitors - "Can't Play Format". However, by pressing the SCAN button on the remote controls of two different Region-A players - SONY and Panasonic - I was able to get to the menu and access the main feature without a problem. I have also tested both discs on a Region-A PS3. To get to the main menu - so that you could access the film - once the first trailer (which is actually in 1080p) starts, press the green triangle button on your remote/controller and then select forward (120); the PS3 will skip over the PAL trailers and get you to the main menu. From there, one should know what to do. One does not have to follow the same routine on Disc 2. There are no trailers on it.
Red Cliff Blu-ray, Audio Quality
There is only one audio track on this Blu-ray disc: Mandarin DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track. For the record, the British distributors have provided imposed English subtitles for the main feature. They do appear inside the image frame but are slightly smaller than usual.
Even though the British distributors have not ported the three outstanding audio tracks the Hong Kong Blu-ray release has - DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1, LPCM 7.1, and Dolby TrueHD 7.1 - I am every bit as impressed with their Mandarin DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track. It is loud, incredibly powerful and with plenty of surround activity. To my ears, the battle scenes sound just as incredible as they did on the Hong Kong Blu-ray disc. Furthermore, the dialog is equally crisp, clear and very easy to follow. Finally, I did not detect any disturbing pops, cracks, or hissings to report in this review.
Red Cliff Blu-ray, Special Features and Extras
Note: All of the supplemental features are encoded in 480/60i. Therefore, they are perfectly playable on Region-A PS3s and SAs. All special features are placed on Disc 2.
John Woo Interview - the director talks about his decision to film Red Cliff, the technical difficulties he and his crew had to overcome, as well as the film's message. The interview is in English. (16 min).
Behind the Scenes - a standard featurette focusing on the main characters in Red Cliff, many of the epic battle scenes, the true story the film is based upon, etc. In Mandarin with optional English subtitles. (21 min).
Red Cliff Blu-ray, Overall Score and Recommendation
This is a solid Region-B (actually, Region-Free) release of John Woo's epic Red Cliff. I must quickly note, however, that the UK market is also getting the international, shorter version of the film. So, be careful when you shop - what you want to have in your libraries is Entertainment in Video's Special Edition of the film (a double Blu-ray set).
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