Thursday, 11 December 2014
The Battle of Red Cliff (2008)
It would be pithy, and not entirely inaccurate, to summarise this film as "the Chinese 300". Like that film, it focuses on a historical battle where a tyrant's massive force is outwitted and outfought by a far less numerous enemy. Like that film, it is highly exaggerated and romanticised, with little regard for what actually happened except at the most elementary level. Like that film, it frequently relies on the bad guys being colossally stupid.
Fortunately, there are ways in which the films differ. Red Cliff features more colours than just orange and teal for instance. And it has more than one significant female character. Admittedly, it has only two, but they get to actually have a significant influence on the course of events. That is alas somewhat undermined by one of those 'woman gets held hostage as a way to control her man' scenes, but at least she puts up a decent fight before it happens. No just grabbing her upper arm to render her helpless. It's also far less racist. But then it would kind of have to be.
That's not to say the film is without flaws. It's not well paced, for one thing. The original Chinese release was five hours long in two parts; the version I saw is 'only' half that, but it still drags in several parts: mostly the battle sequences. These are supposed to be epic and dramatic but to my eyes they come across as extremely contrived and sometimes rather goofy. Also, as mentioned above, the bad guys do a lot of really, really dumb things, continually stumbling into the traps laid for them by the heroes. It's hard to take them seriously, they're so inept.
The plot? Well, like I said it's more or less the same premise as 300. Cao Cao, nominally the 'Prime Minister' of the Han Empire, but actually the real power, browbeats the Emperor into authorising him to invade the lands to the south. Cao Cao intends to unify all China under his control and - so his enemies believe at least - make himself emperor once he has done so.
Unfortunately for Cao Cao the lords he has chosen to attack are each served by a man of incredible intelligence, skill and daring. These are the master strategist and natural scholar Kongming, and the able general and fearsome warrior Zhou Yu. These two will continually outmaneuver him in the ensuing campaign, culminating in an initially spectacular but ultimately overly long and rather tiresome battle.
I really wish this movie had worked better for me, because I think there are things in it to like, but ultimately it didn't quite come together.