Director: John Woo
Starring: Tony Leung Chiu Wai, Takeshi Kaneshiro,Fengyi Zhang, Chen Chang, Wei Zhao
UK Release date: 12 June 2009
Certificate: 15 (148 mins)
‘The year is 208 AD…’ Thus begins, in the style of an energetic documentary, the events of Red Cliff: the battle between the end of the Han dynasty and the beginning of the Three Kingdoms that sits as a myth at the centre of popular Chinese history. In Taipei City the battle is being recreated in scholarly fashion in the exhibition ‘A Thousand, Thousand Churning Waves’. In the Westernised version of Red Cliff (even at 2 ½ hours it is a shortened version of the two parts released in Asia), history is turned into an epic action film.
It is beautifully put together, the battle scenes played out at every perspective and speed imaginable, interspersed with long descriptive shots of weapons, feathers, mountains, facial features. There’s no doubt that you are watching something of Homeric violence – much more so than Troy – from the first skirmish to the balletic final confrontation. Needless to say that the driving force behind the wars between the evil Chancellor and the two warlords in the south is the imperial drive to conquer all. The message of the film, which it hammers home at every turn, is the message of The Art of War: balance, thoughtfulness and humility will win out over greedy force.
For all the emphasis on balance it’s slightly disappointing to find the characters so black and white – Cao Cao the Chancellor is such a villain and his opponents, especially the seraphic Zhuge Liang, so evidently superior in the moral sphere, that for cultural outsiders (for whom the myth holds no previous resonance) it’s hard to even pretend that the outcome is ever in doubt. As a consequence of shortening the film, the action leaps forwards in time unannounced at various points, meaning that it’s definitely a film to sit back and admire rather than to engage in with an analytical mind.
Perhaps there is something more challenging in the depiction of heroism. It is something that does not sit easily with us here at just over the doorstep of the 21st century, where the media can barely give people time to wake up in the morning before dragging another public Icarus up to the wall. We seem to be much more comfortable with failed and flawed heroes: people who succeed for a while but then due to their own internal deficiencies settle for second best, a near-success, or worse, lose everything due to faulty psychologies. I wager that the emotion most evoked at the end of popular novels from the past ten years is that odd catch-all of ‘bittersweet’: things aren’t as good as they could have been, but they’ll be ok.
Whence this distancing from heroism comes is one for everyone to conjecture, but I feel a few important consequences. An acknowledgement that ‘heroes are human too’ is clearly an accurate and decent one. But when the ideal of heroism is foreshortened by an acknowledgement of the weakness of those who strive for it, we run into problems. The ‘bittersweet’ failure, when repeated throughout a culture, runs the risk of no longer stimulating us to strive for the highest moral life possible: in films like Red Cliff, however difficult we may find it being faced with constant success, both moral and physical, we are forced to remember that saintliness and heroism are both callings applicable to all of us. The Christian reaction to weakness has never been the bittersweet one of ‘I tried, but you know, here is far enough for little old me anyway’. The ever-present forgiveness comes hand in hand with the challenge to continue striving – and the bar may be set high, but to lower it because of our own lowliness must be a mistake.
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