Today I Watched John Woo’s Red Cliff part 1 (2008)
While Hollywood has not made an honest to goodness epic since the wrapping of Lord of the Rings, China has been cranking out solid, vaguely historical epics for some time now and it has become something of a staple of the Chinese industry. So it stands to reason that when John Woo returned to the Chinese film industry that he would re-acclimate and re-establish himself by trying his hand at a uniquely Chinese yet also strikingly modern form. This adoption of the Historical epic in China and their creation of their own brand of it can likely be attributed to a number of things, firstly it is a way to reclaim their cultural heritage after the destructive communist revolution while simultaneously creating a platform to discuss contemporary issues with classical Chinese philosophy. This is just speculation on my part but may also serve as a way of getting subtly transgressive themes through the sensors as they might see a celebration of Chinese history and philosophy instead of a jab at the current regime.
Red Cliff itself is an adaptation of an episode in the Romance of the Three Kingdoms, one of the most important works of literature in the world and probably the single most important in China. It is a time of civil war as the ambitious Cao Cao attempts to unite all of China under his despotic leadership. But there are those who oppose him, both for their own selfish reasons and out of obligation to halt the progress of such a treacherous man. To be honest I have a difficult time remembering everyone’s names and keeping their political positions straight but John Woo knows the answer to my plight as this film does a great job at keeping the emotion and broad strokes of the story from getting bogged down in details. He also assembles a cast of unique faces who, with the expert costume and makeup design, all stand out with memorable looks.
Woo fully dives into the thematic underpinnings of this genre as well, exploring a mix of Taoist, Confucian, and Buddhist philosophy. Unlike, say Lord of the Rings, these kinds of films are not strictly black and white, villains are not born as such, they are the product of human folly and an inability to recognize one’s own flaws. Hubris is the big evil here and anything that would lead one to act in a non-benevolent manner. While these types of films are basically build up to big battles there is a certain morosity to the violence. It is a bad thing that they must resort to violence against fellow Chinese to oppose the destructive Cao Cao, while the film is certainly not a pacifist one, it is wholly aware that the loss of any human life is tragic.
While I have a few more thoughts on this film, particularly how it relates to Lord of the Rings, the last big American epic, I shall save some of those thoughts for when I review the final part. For this the first episode it is a remarkably well balanced film with plenty of character drama to back up the incredible battle scenes. There is just enough levity and humour but not so much that it distracts from the reality of the situation. This is a masterfully crafted epic and despite being primarily build up for the finale, it delivers a very satisfying watching experience in it’s own right. 5/5