Hong Kong action auteur John Woo continued his comeback with the second part of his historical epic. Riding a wave of Chinese national pride spurred by the 2008 Beijing Olympics, Red Cliff Part Two proved a critical and commercial hit, becoming Woo’s biggest blockbuster in years. To recap: in Han dynasty China, power-hungry Prime Minister Cao Cao (Zhang Fengyi, of Farewell My Concubine) manipulates the boy emperor into waging war on Prince Sun Quan (Chang Chen) and Lord Liu Bei (Yau Yung). Their armies crushed and left hopelessly outnumbered, these two join a small, brave band of allies led by dashing General Zhou Yu (Tony Leung Chiu-wai), master strategist Zhu-Ge Liang (Takeshi Kaneshiro) and gutsy Princess Sun Shangxiang (Vicky Zhao Wei). Their combined ingenuity halts the advancing Northern army, but now the good guys face the might of the imperial armada.
As we rejoin the story, Prime Minister Cao and his dastardly allies unwind watching a rousing game of football (which the Chinese have since claimed to have invented. Make of that what you will, British viewers), unaware as plucky Princess Sun infiltrates their camp, disguised as a male soldier. Caught up in the camaraderie, she even heads the ball back onto the field! In a brilliant, almost Shakespearean subversion of Woo’s traditional male bonding, Princess Sun befriends a kindly Northern soldier. Though he unwittingly helps her spy on his generals, the friendship that blossoms between the two is genuine, deeply affecting and of course, destined for a tragic end. Vicky Zhao Wei excels as arguably the finest female character in any John Woo film.
Meanwhile, typhoid runs rampant throughout the Northern camp. Cao cynically floats diseased bodies by sailboat so as to infect the Southern allies. This leads Liu Bei and his generals to withdraw their sickly soldiers, leaving the allies facing certain defeat. Prime Minister Cao then sends an old friend of General Zhao’s, hoping to trick him into revealing their plans while they drunkenly reminisce about old times. Zhao cannily turns the tables, but with the wind being on the Northerner’s side and the good guys hopelessly low on arrows, his strategy looks set to collapse. In a display of near-Jedi cool, Ge Liang sails a boatful of scarecrows and draws the enemy’s fire, returning with a fresh supply of arrows and as a trump card, provoking Cao into rashly beheading his two best naval commanders. Eventually Princess Shangxiang returns and, in a scene recently spoofed in Just Another Pandora’s Box (2010), unravels the enemies’ plans inscribed across her undergarments in sensuous slow-motion. Using Ge Liang’s new science of meteorology, together with his innovative explosives and ten-shot rapid-fire crossbows, General Zhao formulates a new desperate plan even as fate deals the good guys another crippling blow.
Part Two’s first eighty minutes continue the first film’s preoccupation with the interlinking of strategy, philosophy and poetry, elements much admired by Chinese critics who understood Woo was stressing the importance of such things in their culture. Like a dextrous scroll painter, Woo keeps such scenes lively and compelling with his fluid editing and use of martial arts as symbolism. In essence the Battle of Red Cliff is an ideological war: ruthless pragmatic bureaucracy as embodied by Cao, versus honour, decency and compassion represented by our brave band of eccentric superheroes.
However, Woo allows Cao his moment of valour when he rouses his typhoid-ridden troops with a subtle speech invoking his love for his thirteen year old son and desire to rid China of tyrannical warlords. Such is the skill of Zhang Fengyi’s sly performance, we never know whether Cao is sincere or not. On the opposite end of the moral spectrum, the heroes share traditional Chinese celebratory sweets that symbolically bond them as a family. It is one of Woo’s masterful use of cinematic shorthand that marks Red Cliff as a major return to form.
By far his most controversial plot twist was having Zhou’s pregnant wife Xiao Qiao (Lin Chi-Ling) distract her obsessed admirer Prime Minister Cao before her husband attacks. In reality no such encounter took place, but it allows model-turned actress Lin Chi-Ling a rare chance to shine while, once again, Woo uses traditional Chinese culture - in this instance the tea ceremony - as a means of psychologically exposing his characters.
Woo makes the first half of Red Cliff Part Two into an elaborate shell game, eventually unveiling Zhou and Ge-Liang’s real plan in a masterstroke where all the separate threads come together. The naval battle wherein ships explode in a fiery holocaust is executed with all the pageantry, poetry and pyrotechnical flair we expect from John Woo, and proves the icing on a dramatically nourishing, substantial cake. And he throws in a classic John Woo standoff between the dastardly Cao, Zhao and his allies that recalls the climax to Hard Boiled (1992). About the only disappointment is Chow Yun-Fat could not be coaxed into his once-heralded cameo. In all other aspects this is top-flight stuff.
One of the most influential directors working in the modern action genre. Hong Kong-born Woo (real name Yusen Wu) spent a decade making production-line martial arts movies for the Shaw Brothers before his melodramatic action thriller A Better Tomorrow (1987) introduced a new style of hyper-realistic, often balletic gun violence.
It also marked Woo's first collaboration with leading man Chow-Yun Fat, who went on to appear in a further three tremendous cop/gangster thrillers for Woo - A Better Tomorrow II, The Killer and Hard Boiled. The success of these films in Hong Kong inspired dozens of similar films, many pretty good, but few with Woo's artistry or emphasis on characters as well as blazing action.
In 1993, Woo moved over to Hollywood, with predictably disappointing results. Face/Off was fun, but the likes of Broken Arrow, Windtalkers and Mission: Impossible 2 too often come across as well-directed, but nevertheless generic, studio product. Needs to work with Chow-Yun Fat again, although his return to Hong Kong with Red Cliff proved there was life in the old dog yet.