Red Cliff: Part I & Part II (2008)
By: Paul Ryan on May 25, 2010  | 
Icon | Region 4, PAL | 2.35:1 (16:9 enhanced) | Mandarin DD 5.1 | 274 minutes (Full Specs)
The Movie
Cover Art
Director: John Woo
Starring: Tony Leung, Takeshi Kaneshiro, Zhang Feng Li, You Yong
Screenplay: John Woo, Khan Chan, Kuo Cheng, Sheng Heyu
Country: China
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After a lengthy sojourn in Hollywood, during which he made the uneven likes of Face/Off, Mission: Impossible 2 and Paycheck, John Woo has returned to his Chinese filmmaking roots with Red Cliff. Inspired by the big-scale Hollywood epics of the 1960s, Woo has turned in his most accomplished film in years. Truly breathtaking in both its scope and visual beauty, Red Cliff is an historical epic that combines large canvass storytelling with cutting-edge visual effects and astonishing battle scenes.

In the year 208 A.D., the Han Dynasty is drawing to an end. Power-hungry Prime Minister – and General - Cao Cao (Zhang Feng Li) contrives an Imperial military attack on the southern kingdoms of Sun Quan (Chang Chen), and Liu Bei (You Yong), under the guise of eliminating rebel elements. Forming an alliance, the two southern Emperors marshal their considerable forces to resist Cao Cao. Sun Quan's Grand Viceroy Zhou Yu (Tony Leung) and Liu Bei's eccentric chief advisor Zhu-ge Liang (Takeshi Kaneshiro) are placed in charge of co-ordinating the war effort. Skirmishes and battles steadily escalate, with shifting loyalties, espionage and psychological warfare on all sides. Eventually, this culminates in the legendary naval battle of Red Cliff, on the Yangtze River. The outcome of this battle would reshape China for many years to come…

Boasting separate unit directors for fight choreography, battle scenes and naval sequences (all of whom really earn their pay day here), Red Cliff is never short of spectacular. The action is plentiful, diverse and thrilling. The martial arts choreography of Corey Yuen is both exciting and graceful and the battle scenes (achieved with both CGI and thousands of extras) are marvelous to behold. Woo's staging is intricate and complex, and his expected visual signatures – even the pigeons, long ago reduced to tired self parody in his Hollywood work - compliment and enhance the story rather than distract from it. You're aware throughout that you're watching the work of a true master.

Of course, all this technical mastery would ring hollow if the narrative did not engage, but it does. The script (co-written by Woo) creates vivid portraits of its real-life historical figures. While we're never in doubt as to who the good guys are as opposed to the bad, each of the characterizations are well fleshed-out and you care about what happens to them. The presence of a newborn foal to symbolize the reshaped political landscape is an effective poetic touch. Admittedly, the historical landscape isn't overly familiar to a western audience, which results in a bit of initial confusion, so attention does need to be paid, but the rewards are ample.

The cast, filled with major Asian stars, rises admirably to meet Woo's ambitions. Leung (who replaced Chow Yun Fat early in production) and Kaneshiro both give rich and charismatic performances. Zhang Feng Li brings both villainy and humanity to the historically-reviled Cao Cao, while the female side is ably represented by Zhao Wei as tomboy spy Sun Shangxiang and Lin Chi-ling as Zhou Yu's wife, Xiao Ciao.

Released theatrically here in a condensed single-feature version (available separately on disc as The Battle of Red Cliff), this special edition DVD presents the original two-part release, as originally exhibited in Asia. However, the version presented on this release comes from a cut UK master. Unlike the bad old days off BBFC censorship, where shots of particular types of violence and illegal weapons were routinely chopped, all that's missing here are a few horse falls (verboten under BBFC animal cruelty guidelines). Only one of these cuts was actually requested by the UK censors – very apparent in part one, and clumsily cut – while the rest were pre-cut by the distributor, and are less noticeable. The cuts total just a few seconds, but will likely be a deal-breaker for purists. Personally, I'm unhappy with the fact that we've been subjected to second-hand censorship (as has happened on so many Australian DVDs over the years), but I also have my own general concerns about horse falls, so I'm not as riled about it compared to other kinds of cuts. As such, it is matter of personal choice as to whether this affects your decision to purchase the film. A full run-down of the cuts can be found here at
Red Cliff's anamorphic transfer is gorgeous, with luminous colours and exceptional detail. The subtitling does have significant issues, though. The burnt-in English subtitles are very small and in a white font within the frame that occasionally gets lost in brighter scenes. As such, you'll need to sit reasonably close to your display, or view the film on a large television. This problem is reportedly also apparent on Icon's Blu-Ray release as well. That niggle aside, the transfer is first-rate.
Audio for Red Cliff is available in both 2.0 and 5.1 options. Both are immersive and rich, but the 5.1 goes the extra distance with exceptional surround effects. Special mention must be made of Taro Iwashiro's sumptuous music, which combines traditional Asian instrumentation with the sweep of a classic Hollywood score.
Extra Features
For such a massive film, the bonus material is pretty scanty. On starting disc one, trailers play for Three Kingdoms: Resurrection of the Dragon and An Empress and the Warriors. Disc two features an enjoyable interview with Woo, who discusses his 16-year journey in getting the film made, the influence of David Lean and Stanley Kubrick on Woo's style and the differences in the working approaches of American and Chinese crews. Less impressive is the 20-minute behind-the-scenes featurette, which looks like it has been randomly cut down from a much longer piece, with abrupt edits and comments that suddenly stop mid-sentence. The theatrical trailer is one of those irritating, faintly racist American previews that omits any spoken dialogue in an attempt to disguise that it is selling a foreign-language film.
The Verdict
Movie Score
Disc Score
Overall Score
Epic filmmaking of the highest order, Red Cliff is thrilling, visually-spectacular and compelling from start to finish. Easily Woo's best work in years, and certainly his most ambitious to date, this is essential viewing for both fans of his work and aficionados of Asian cinema. Icon's DVD presentation is flawed - not to mention slightly cut - but presents the film with lustrous video and excellent audio.

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