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Thursday, April 15, 2010

RED CLIFF -- DVD/Blu-Ray review by porfle

(NOTE: Blu-Ray comments by Ian Friedman. This review is for the 148-minute Western edit of the film; in Asia, it runs 280 minutes and was released in two separate parts. The longer version is also available on the Magnet DVD label.)

"A dream for 18 years...five years of preparation...almost a year of principle photography" begins the making-of featurette for Magnet's new DVD release of John Woo's epic RED CLIFF (2008), and there's little doubt where all that effort went. I haven't seen all of Woo's films, but if this isn't his masterpiece then I can't wait to see the one that tops it.

The story is taken from the fact-based Chinese legend of the "Three Kingdoms" and begins in 208 A.D. Years of civil war have brought the defeat of the Northern warlords by prime minister Cao Cao (Fengyi Zhang), a fierce military leader who now has his sights set on conquering the peaceful Southern territories. Browbeating a weak Emperor into declaring the two Southern rulers traitors, Cao Cao then leads his huge naval and infantry forces toward what he is confident will be certain victory. Achieving this, his next goal will be to usurp the throne of the Emperor himself.

When the soldiers and civilians under ruler Liu Bei are forced into retreat, he sends his brilliant military strategist Kongming (Takeshi Kaneshiro) to seek the help of the young and inexperienced ruler Sun Quan, hoping that their combined efforts might withstand Cao Cao's invasion. Sun Quan's viceroy Zhao Yu (Tony Leung) accepts the challenge and, with Kongming's help, sets about devising a battle plan with which their vastly outnumbered forces might stand a chance against overwhelming odds.

After the plot is set into motion, the first half of the film is a steady, suspenseful buildup to the initial clash between Cao Cao and the Southern alliance. This bloody battle between two mighty ground forces would suffice as a grand finale for most war films (which it does, in fact, for RED CLIFF PART 1 as released in Asia). After being lured into an ambush by Sun Quan's fearless young sister, Princess Shang Xiang (Wei Zhao), who is determined to help defend her homeland, the invading army is thwarted by Zhao Yu's brilliantly effective tactic known as the "Tortoise Formation." Here, soldiers mass together using their shields in unison to create a living maze which traps the enemy forces. The resulting battle is rife with Woo's distinctive flashes of imaginative imagery and technical prowess.

With this defeat, Cao Cao then establishes a base camp across the river from Red Cliff and plans a massive naval attack. Thus, the buildup of suspense begins anew as the two sides plot to outwit each other and gain the advantage in the impending sea battle, until at last RED CLIFF explodes into one of the most spectacular warfare sequences ever filmed. Arrows darken the skies, great wooden warships collide in raging walls of flame, and hundreds of soldiers engage in furious hand-to-hand combat and brutal swordplay. These are some of the most thrilling and mind-boggling visuals ever devised for a film of this kind, as Woo brings all of his accumulated skills as an action director to bear with a sustained intensity that is spellbinding.

With all of this, however, the story and characters are a major part of what makes RED CLIFF such a rewarding experience. Tony Leung gives a strong performance as the wise and valiant Zhao Yu, providing a stark contrast to the equally good Fengyi Zhang's arrogant, war-loving Cao Cao. In THE KILLER, Woo used cross-cutting to highlight the similarities between his adversarial main characters, while here, he does so to accentuate their essential differences. We see Cao Cao making his war plans and Zhao Yu anticipating them all; later, Zhao Yu shares tender moments with his devoted wife Xiao Qiao (Chi-Ling Lin) while a lovelorn Cao Cao, who adores Xiao Qiao from afar, seeks hollow comfort amidst his uncaring concubines.

Xiao Qiao's devotion to Zhao Yu leads to a pivotal sequence, beautifully crafted by Woo, in which she steals away to Cao Cao's camp and surrenders herself to him in order to delay his attack. The enemy warlord reveals a poignant emotional vulnerability here, giving his character a depth beyond that of the standard villain. As a climax to the monumental battle which follows, Zhao Yu's mad dash to rescue Xiao Qiao from certain death is portrayed in such exquisitely cinematic terms that the result is both thrilling and fiercely romantic. Here, Woo impressively demonstrates that his former melodramatic tendencies have matured into sheer visual poetry.

Other episodes throughout the film are memorable. A scene involving a little boy and an off-key flute introduces Zhao Yu's character in delightful visual terms, as does his stirring stringed-instrument duet with Kongming. There's a breathtaking CGI-enhanced passage in which Kongming releases a white carrier pigeon while the camera pulls back to track its progress as it flies past the scores of ships in Cao Cao's vast navy, over the shoreline and into the enemy encampment, all in one seamless shot. Woo's camera is constantly on the move, but always with purpose.

Technical aspects such as set design, costuming, and cinematography are all first-rate, and the stunts and fight choreography of the battle scenes are consistently exciting. CGI is well-used for the most part, adding scope to the film's endless masses of soldiers and warships and enhancing the pictorial splendor of many breathtaking shots. Yet there are enough flesh-and-blood extras and massive real-world sets to create a genuine sense of wonder and spectacle.

The DVD from Magnolia's Magnet label is in 2.35:1 widescreen with both Mandarin and English-dubbed Dolby 5.1 soundtracks. Subtitles are in English and Spanish. Extras include the featurette "The Making of an Epic: Red Cliff", a brief interview in which John Woo discusses the creation of the carrier pigeon shot, the promo short "HDNet: A Look at Red Cliff", storyboards, and trailers for other Magnolia releases.

The Blu-ray shows excellent color and detail with no sign of digital tampering. The clarity and vivid color work perfectly for an epic movie like Red Cliff, since it consists of huge armies and vistas. The sound mix is in a word, thundering, it really sounds like a battle from the period of the Romance of the Three Kingdoms in your living room. The sound separation is excellent with great directional support.

It's interesting to compare an early Woo film such as THE KILLER with this one to see how far an already great director has evolved over the years. He has refined his formidable skills to such an extent that watching a towering achievement like RED CLIFF makes me wonder how much better Woo can possibly get. It left me both exhausted and exhilarated, and glowing with renewed respect for John Woo as a consummate film artist of the first order.

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