Simply the second half of an almost five-hour movie rather than a self-contained pic in its own right, John Woo’s costume actioner “Red Cliff II” delivers in spades for auds left hungry for more by last summer’s first seg. With characters already established, this half is expectedly heavier on action, though nimble editing and charismatic perfs still pack beaucoup human interest prior to the final hour’s barnstorming battle. Pic opened bracingly in China Jan. 7 and fans out this month through major Asian markets (with Japan in April), where biz should rank with that of “Red Cliff.”
Given the success of Woo’s high-stakes undertaking — at $80 million, the most expensive Chinese-language movie ever — it remains a crying shame that the two films may never be seen outside Asia on the bigscreen. (For hardcore buffs, the first pic is already available on DVD in Asia.) Non-Asian auds are meant to be content with a planned 2½-hour “international version,” which cannot hope to replicate the impressive detail and sheer epic sweep of the 280-minute original.
Rapid, two-minute recap of “Red Cliff” (beneath the main titles) serves more to get auds’ pulses racing again than to educate newcomers. The year is 208 A.D., near the end of the 400-year-old Han Dynasty, and the opposing forces of prime-minister-cum-general Cao Cao (mainland vet Zhang Fengyi), repping the Emperor in the north, and a relatively small coalition led by Zhou Yu (Hong Kong idol Tony Leung Chiu-wai), repping “rebellious” southern warlords, are about to face off in a decisive battle at Red Cliff on the Yangtze River.
The north-south divide, symbolized by the river that runs through China’s middle, is even more strongly emphasized here: Cao Cao’s massive but lumpen army is uneasy on water and tiring after campaigning southward, while Zhou Yu, typical of more wily, faster-thinking southerners, is determined to hold what he sees as a line in the sand. Script doesn’t push the allegory of a northern-based government trying to unify China by force, but it’s there for the taking, with Zhou carefully stressing at one point that he doesn’t oppose the Emperor per se, only Cao Cao and his brutal methods.
Though the first film’s cliffhanger ending had an eve-of-battle feel, “Red Cliff II” actually spends well over an hour detailing each side’s plans, as Cao Cao’s initial confidence in his numerical supremacy is undercut by an outbreak of typhoid among his troops.
After Cao Cao manages to infect Zhou’s troops with the disease, Zhou, aided by master strategist Zhuge Liang (Chinese-Japanese thesp Takeshi Kaneshiro), realizes this is as much a psychological war as it is a simple numbers game. When warlord Liu Bei (You Yong) politely deserts Zhou, the latter is left with only 30,000 men vs. Cao Cao’s several hundred thousand.
There’s considerable fun, and not a little humor, in the resourceful southerners’ wheezes, aided by secret messages sent back from Cao Cao’s camp by undercover princess Sun Shangxiang (petite mainland actress Vicki Zhao). After some clever tactics by Zhuge Liang to undermine Cao Cao, the scene is finally set for the decisive David-vs.-Goliath engagement, with Zhou Yu’s wife (Taiwanese supermodel Lin Chi-ling) playing a crucial role.
The massive battle, on land as well as sea, has no single standout sequence (such as the trap of shields into which Cao Cao’s troops were lured in the first pic), but there’s the same balance between the mechanical aspects of ancient warfare and acts of individual heroism. Finale, with its personal standoff, plays fast and loose with history and comes closest to the feel of a regular Hong Kong actioner, but makes sense in dramatic terms after well over four hours of buildup.
As in the first pic, Zhang is a powerhouse presence as Cao Cao and is easily the richest character in the whole pic, as the script refrains from reducing him to a pure villain. Leung is slightly less imposing this time, though his chemistry with Kaneshiro is fine, drawing a friendship between equals. Zhao again supplies some spunky humor, and Lin, largely decorative before, has a couple key scenes in which she holds her own against Zhang.
Taro Iwashiro’s rousing score again complements the fluid editing (especially clever in keeping a large number of characters in the game) and the gritty but not unattractive widescreen lensing. Visual and special effects do their job just fine.
Outside China, pic has a secondary title that roughly means “The Decisive Battle of All Time.” In this 280-minute, two-part version, helmer-producer Woo and fellow producer Terence Chang have indeed crafted one of the great Chinese costume epics of all time.