RED CLIFF 2 Review
[Our thanks go out to regular reader James Marsh - last seen in these parts with his review of Ong Bak 2 - for this review of John Woo's Red Cliff 2 - the conclusion of Woo's massive military spectacle.]
After a rather helpful and stylishly executed recap of the events of part one, we are thrown immediately back into the thick of the action, or rather, into the middle of a game of football. Cao Cao’s troops are killing time with a little competitive Cuju as they wait for the real battle of Red Cliff to kick off. While Sun Quan (Chang Chen) and his coalition forces formulate their plan of action across the bay, his sister, the plucky Shang Xiang (Zhao Wei) is seen masquerading as an enemy soldier, intermittently sending updates to Zhuge Liang (Takeshi Kaneshiro) via carrier pigeon of the state of the enemy’s superior forces. And the news is encouraging. A typhoid epidemic is sweeping through the camp yielding heavy casualties. While some of the allied generals see this as an opportune moment to strike, noble Zhou Yu (Tony Leung) sees this as a dishonourable tactic. It is not beneath Cao Cao (Zhang Fengyi) to use this viral outbreak to his advantage and loads his infected dead onto rafts and sends them over to his enemies’ camp. This act of germ warfare has a crippling effect on the already far weaker coalition, and causes a number of the generals to pull their troops out and head for home.
Both sides are drawn into a tactical battle of wits, reluctant to mount a full scale assault while their forces are so ravaged by illness. Cao Cao sends an old student friend of Zhou Yu’s, to persuade him into surrendering. His wife Xiao Qiao (Lin Chi Ling) meanwhile, believes her perfected tea ceremony skills may have diplomatic skills and is prepared to go to unparalleled lengths to prove her point. Zhou Yu is only too aware of Cao Cao’s reputation for wooing his enemies’ wives and has no intention of letting Xiao Qiao out of his sight. Zhuge, meanwhile, applies his tactical expertise and almost godlike understanding of meteorology to not only sap vital ammunition from the Han troops, but also facilitate a devious plot to spread paranoia and distrust through the enemy camp.
To say that John Woo has delivered on the promise of Red Cliff part one is to understate the obvious. This second half is a master class in ratcheting up tension, before unleashing a furious fireball of a finale. The battle sequences are expertly handled, showcasing an epic spectacle, while remembering to hone in on the plethora of individuals Woo has spent the last 4+ hours establishing. Everyone is given their moment in the sun, from Nakamura Shido’s grenade testing to Zhao Wei’s, quite literal, big reveal.
There are moments of exuberant bombast which verge on the ridiculous – a stirring speech by Cao Cao seemingly curing typhoid for one – but fans of John Woo will find many of his usual signature themes and devices in attendance. An abundance of white doves throughout, borderline homoerotic declarations of loyalty, brotherhood and mutual admiration (Takeshi and Tony even get to reprise their guzheng duet) and a climactic five-way standoff that would make Tarantino go weak at the knees.
Zhang Fengyi makes Cao Cao a complex and charismatic villain, more than simply a power-hungry politician whose motives can be easily swept aside. Takeshi Kaneshiro is in his element, wrapping his silken tongue around Zhuge’s poetic musings and meditations, and Tony Leung is dependable as ever as the unflappable Zhou Yu. The real revelation in part two is Lin Chi-Ling, who easily eschews those early fears that she may not be robust enough to carry the part of Xiao Qiao – the trophy wife with a lot more gumption than her mantra of “make tea not war” conveys.
Sadly, Chang Chen is again criminally underused, arguably given even less to do this time round than in part one, but the film’s biggest crime is the sidelining of Hu Jun as Zhao Yun. Admittedly his character is “injured” for much of this second half, but the image of him in battle, baby wrapped tightly to his back in a wonderful homage to Hard Boiled, remains one of Red Cliff’s enduring images. He manages to briefly claw his way on screen during the big finale but it was shame after his iconic role in the preceding film.
The criticisms, however, are far outweighed by the praise. Red Cliff achieves where other recent Chinese epics have failed – less melodramatic than The Warlords, more exciting than Battle of Wits - staging grandiose battle sequences that are coherent and genuinely exciting while simultaneously developing numerous characters beyond simply their job description. John Woo should have his passport confiscated immediately and never be allowed to leave Hong Kong again, Red Cliff is undeniable proof that the man can still rock our world, but really should work from home.
Review by James Marsh