Tuesday, January 20, 2009

RED CLIFF Part 2: John Woo's Master Stroke

RED CLIFF Part 2 (war drama)
Cast: Tony Leung Chiu-Wai, Takeshi Kaneshiro, Chang Chen, Zhang Fengyi, Vicky Zhao and Lin Chi Ling

Director: John Woo

Time: 132 mins

Rating: * * * 1/2 (out of 4)

PREAMBLE: While waiting for 'Red Cliff Part 2' to start, I was thinking to myself that it had better be good, so as to make it worth the six-month wait for this second and final instalment. And I got the answer right from the first few sequences - this one is a winner and I was bowled over right from the start. Indeed, John Woo was right, you can't tell that classic war story (based on historical records of "The Chronicles of the Three Kingdoms" rather than the novel, "Romance of the Three Kingdoms") in just two or three hours.

I had found 'Part One' rather slow and disaffecting (read the review here). However, that was just the build-up to this great epic battle - and I should have been a bit more patient.

After a series of flashbacks into Part One, director John Woo reconnects the audience with the story, from the 'football' sequence. From there, we learn the significance of the homing pigeons, get a whiff of biological warfare and conventional espionage. Yes, as the final instalment heats up, the stakes get much higher for Commander Zhou Yu (Tony Leung) and strategist Zhuge Liang (Takeshi Kaneshiro) who must go against the odds to confront the Han Prime Minister Cao Cao's (Zhang Fengyi) 800,000-strong army in a naval-cum-land battle.

Woo dramatises the tactics - and mistakes - of both sides, and even throws in a few twists and an unlikely love story between Princess Sun ShangXiang (Vicky Zhao) and an enemy officer. This may be stretching logic a bit but it offers the much needed distraction and comic relief to the proceedings.

HITS AND MISSES: 'Red Cliff Part 2' offers one of the most gruelling and epic-styled land and sea battle sequences I have ever seen in a Chinese movie. Woo had made use of China's national soldiers as extras and the logistics involved is mind-boggling. Still, the battle sequences are rather draggy and repetitive - Woo's indulgence, given the pains he had taken to set up these sequences.

As mentioned before, Part Two completes the build-up of not only the plot but also the characters. If Lin Chi Ling's role seems like an eye-candy one in the first part, her Xiao Qiao acquits herself well in a subplot about sacrificing herself to give her husband Zhou Yu a vital advantage. Woo plays the segment as if it were Sun Tsu's 'Art of War' game, taking into account elements like fengshui, the opponent's habits, wind direction and weather. It there is a lesson to be learnt from this, it is 'Don't accept offers of tea before a battle.'

THE LOWDOWN: A seat-gripper of a movie for the Chinese New Year holidays.


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