CARVED FROM a two-part movie of nearly five hours, John Woo’s humungous Chinese hit Red Cliff seems to be either too short or too long. Promising subplots keep trying to break out. Emotional moments rise out of nowhere, only to have their force dissipated by yet another battle scene. Thousands die, most of them impaled by wide-gage spears and arrows, but I couldn’t tell you for certain which side they were on. Woo thrusts us down into the middle of scrimmage, his camera following the thrusts of spears and the slashing of swords. Woo takes men and horses charging up to an extreme not seen since the 1960s. When he adds explosives to the mixture, after a very funny montage of a general roaring that the fire bombs need to be bigger, bigger!, there is no arguing that the scope of this movie flabbergasts. But Red Cliff is People’s Republic gigantism, the exuberance of a puritan culture. As for woman-warrior power, the subplot about a general’s sister, Shangxiang (Zhao Wei), who joins the army and becomes a spy, was cut down for this Western edition. Women hardly hold up half of the movie’s lowering skies.
In 200 C.E., the power-mad Prime Minister Cao Cao (Fengyi Zhang) has bled China into a kind of peace. But some of his former enemies are restless: a pair of them, Liu Bei (You Yong) and Sun Quan (Chang Chen) hole up at the Yangtze River fortress of Red Cliff to wait for the attack by sea. Among this cliff-side assembly of royals and generals are the warrior Zhou Yu (Tony Leung) and the most fascinating figure of all, the Confucian paragon Zhuge Liang (Takeshi Kaneshiro). His tactics save the entrenched rebels from the vaster force. Whenever this calm, white-robed strategist enters, some particularly exciting business develops. Kaneshiro is one of the coolest presences in the movies in 2009. Zhuge figures in an ingenious way to collect weapons, using fog and decoys. He also engineers a way in which an attacking cavalry is lured into a maze of iron-shielded phalanxes, as cleverly synchronized as a football half-time show. The flaming finale is his greatest gambit, involving the flickering of candles, the ultra-close-up shots of drops of water falling from a water clock, and one man’s assurance that a handful of seagoing people can take on the ridiculously huge armada of landlubber Cao Cao.
The very end, of course, is a reprise of Woo’s most famous contribution to cinema, the multi-angle Hong Kong standoff, so famous that it’s being parodied on AT&T commercials right now. Cutting Woo’s epic down to size was a fool’s game, and it makes me wonder what it would have been like if the only comparable epic, Lord of the Rings, had been similarly shortened, with Aragorn out of it or with Gollum as a walk-on.