The Lunar New Year will begin at the end of the month and, instead of discussing some dumb comedy, I felt that it would be more appropriate to bring up a modern epic about one of the most important battles in Chinese History.
Before I start, I will point out that a streaming version of this movie is available to rent both from Amazon and Youtube. Donâ€™t bother with it. That is one-part version that (approved by John Woo) hacks off almost half of the story. Literally almost half. The shorter version is fine, but…don’t bother with it. Get the two parts. I usually do not spend a lot of time discussing sequels in this blog, but the second movie is not so much a sequel as it is the back-half of a long movie. The combined length of the two regular movies around 4 hours and 46 or 47 minutes while the one-part version is around 2 hours and 28 minutes long. If you are not sure that you can handle a story that is nearly five hours long, then avoid this movie; donâ€™t settle for the version that is actually slightly longer than either real version. Some releases of the movie are of only Part I or Part II while others have both. These releases will probably blatantly say on the cover that the movie comes in two parts, such as the picture that I have posted. If you see one that does not do so, then leave it alone.
Okay? So, letâ€™s begin.
The movie takes place almost literally 1800 years before the release of these two movies. It is the year 208 and Chinaâ€™s history Han Dynasty is coming apart. Emperor Xian is a nice fellow, but has had pretty much no real power since he gained the throne back in 189. For the last twelve years, he has been under the thumb of Prime Minister Cao Cao, who pretty much bullies him into approving an attack on the feudal lords Liu Bei and Sun Quan. When one of the Senators protests that this campaign against two men who have not actively threatened the realm (Liu Bei actually being a relative of the Emperor) is just a pretext for Cao Cao usurping the throne, Cao Cao has him executed. So, Cao Cao is the bad guy in this version of the story.
Cao Cao sends several thousands of troops against Liu Beiâ€™s Shu forces. The Shu are outnumbered, though they still could have put up a good fight if not for the fact that they are protecting several thousands of refugees fleeing from Cao Cao. It is thanks to master strategist Zhuge Liang and some of Liu Beiâ€™s super-elite warriors that the Shu are able to last as long as they do before retreating. One of these warriors almost manages to kill Cao Cao before getting captured. Cao Cao decides to let him escape to his comrades, saying that he will need men like him under his command when Liu Bei finally surrenders.
The Shu are defeated and on the verge of being demoralized, but Zhuge Liang has an idea: he will go to the Southlands and convince Sun Quan to join the forces of Wu to the forces of Shu in the fight against Cao Cao. The others are uncertain. Sun Quan is young and inexperienced. Can they depend on him? Can they trust him? Can an alliance last? Still, the situation is too desperate for them to be picky and Zhuge Liang is on his way South.
Sun Quan is a youthful Lord. Having inherited the title from his elder brother, he is untested, unprepared, and uncertain. When Zhuge Liang tells him that Cao Cao and his force of 800,000 (it was probably 220,000, but this movie glosses over that) is trying to go through Liu Bei to conquer Wu, Sun Quanâ€™s Senators tell him to surrender. Zhuge Liang tries to appeal to his wish to prove himself, and that he has hidden his true abilities. He also tries to say that the 8 to 1 odds might not be so bad, as the Shu and Wu will be defending what is theirs, while Cao Caoâ€™s forces consist of recently surrendered troops who may not be totally loyal and Northern troops who are unaccustomed to travelling by ship and the Southern climate. Of course, it is not really Sun Quan who Zhuge Liang needs to convince; it is the man who can convince Sun Quan whom Zhuge Liang needs to convince.
The man is Viceroy Zhou Yu, who oversees the armed forces. Zhuge Liang takes his pretty time before discussing the matter of Cao Cao. He observes Zhou Yu maintaining the unity of his troops despite a breech in discipline and then helps a mare give birth. They finally â€œdiscussâ€ the matter of war by jamming out on a couple of Guzhengs like they are dueling banjos. The outcome of this is that Zhou Yu decides that the two of them can work well together, so he decides to convince Sun Quan to join forces with the Shu. Zhou Yu gets some assistance from Sun Quanâ€™s tomboy sister, Sun Shangxiang, who seems eager to get involved. Sun Quan manages to gain his courage on a tiger hunting trip and officially declares an alliance with Liu Bei.
Zhou Yu and a few Wu officials accompany Zhuge Liang back to Liu Bei. The meeting does not go quite as smoothly as it could have, but Liu Bei, Zhuge Liang, and Zhou Yu manage to calm everyone down and formalize the alliance. So, now it is back to the Southlands, where Zhou Yu returns to find that Wuâ€™s declaration of has been met with the decapitation of the messenger. It is time for war. Ninety minutes have past and this story is about a third of the way through.
The movie is based around the Battle of Red Cliffs, an event that changed the fate of Chinese history. Though it is well-known throughout China, it has also been subject to a lot of fictionalization. As such, John Woo felt free to have fun with the story and characters. Some of it works fine, some not so much. For example, the story has Zhuge Liang and Zhou Yu become fast friends, even when a few other versions of the story have Zhou Yu plotting to kill Zhuge Liang. It replaces one of Sun Quanâ€™s general with a fictional character just to alter his storyline. It deemphasizes the smarts and prowess of Cao Caoâ€™s military leaders while allowing the famous fighters under Shu and Wu to individually shine. It depicts Cao Cao as a bit of a creepy guy who had been obsessing over Zhou Yuâ€™s wife Xiao Qiao since she was a kid. It enhances the role of Sun Shangxiang in a way that is admirable, but probably could have been better handled. It has scenes with BIRDS, though they are actually relevant to the plot instead of being motifs. And then, of course, there is the tortoise scene. Without spoiling anything about the scene itself, I will say that even though it still does not really make sense to me, the part of the story that it is based on did not make much sense either and may not have happened at all. Also, John Woo.
As stated towards the beginning of the post, this movie is long. So long that it was decided to split it into two parts and release them within six months of each other. The first is 2 hours and 25 minutes while the second is 2 hours and 21 minutes. Personally, I would have liked it if the second part was longer than the first, but that is just my own thing that has no real basis in reason. Soâ€¦why is this movie so long? It is not really the battle scenes, as the total combined length of the big fights is only around seventy minutes. Really, it is because John Woo takes his time letting scenes breathe, which can translate into some long and slow scenes. There is lots of strategizing and advising that I actually found pretty interesting. The more character-based scenes can be slightly on the clunky side, but itâ€™s John Woo.
There is a lot of emphasis on the three main characters: first Cao Cao, then Zhuge Liang, then Zhuge Liang and Zhou Yu. Of course, there are plenty of other characters who receive focus every now and then, such as Sun Quan, Sun Shangxiang, Xiao Qiao, Liu Bei, and a whole bunch of historical figures whom I did not even mention. There are several major badass warriors on the side of Shu and Wu. It can be a little difficult to remember who is who if you do not already know, but there are three things to keep in mind:
1) If the fighter is wearing White or Red, he is on the side of Liu Bei or Sun Quan.
2) If the fighter is wearing Blue or Gray, he is probably on the side of Cao Cao
3) If the fighter is one of those badasses who can fight a bunch of guys on his own, then heÂ is a good guy no matter what color clothes he wears.
Thatâ€™s pretty much all that you need to know. Of course, if you happen to feel that a few of the characters have Lord of the Rings counterparts, then feel free to make use of that if that helps.
As stated before, John Woo reworked enough of this story to fit his style and afterâ€¦well, the 45-minute mark, the next four hours plays up the bourgeoning friendship between Zhuge Liang and Zhou Yu (as a side note, the two actors are from Taiwan and Hong Kong, which made some to claim that the movie was a sly dig against the government of Mainland China, though I have been told that Japanese actor Ken Watanabe was considered for the role of Cao Cao) As also stated before, some versions of the story have Zhuge Liang and Zhou Yu being less than chummy. Still, John Woo did this because that is what John Woo does; he likes to depict friendship between men, particularly on opposite sides. Often his movies (at least his movies from Hong Kong) has this friendship end tragically, usually through death. Here, that would be outright impossible to depict given the history. On the other hand, Woo foreshadows what will most definitely be the death of whatever friendship they may have.
I forget if the abridged version has that many references to the future where Liu Bei and Sun Quan become enemies, but they are definitely there in the regular version, most blatantly after the scene where Sun Shangxiang rebels against her brotherâ€™s suggestion that she marry Liu Bei to seal the alliance (they will eventually marry for that reason, but it will not be a happy marriage). Zhuge Liang and Zhou Yu will actually be bitter enemies by the time the fragile Wu-Shu alliance finally breaks in 219, and no amount of John Wooing can alter that. By the end of the movie, however, the two depart as friends, both feeling that that moment will be the last time that they will actually meet as friends. In that sense, what seems like a happy (SPOILER) ending has a bit of a tragic edge that might be lost on those who unfamiliar with the story. A small, but important part of the story shows how even old friendships can end in deadly betrayal. Whether or not the two men were actually friendly, the movie suggests that they made the most of their time together, deciding to be friends because they would not have the chance again. There are moments of caution and coldness between the two men, but it becomes clear that they did care for each other, and their talk of possible future enmity was spoken with a hint of regret and light-hearted irony, since they really did synch up well.
One thing that John Woo does differently in this movie, aside from replacing guns with swords, is how he treats the female characters. Well, two female characters, at least. Sun Shengxiang and Xiao Qiao did not really have big roles in the official records or the famous novel, and John Woo could have kept them in the background or turn them into those annoying love interests that had in his early Hong Kong action movies. Instead, he makes them two different characters with their own ways of contributing to the fight. Sun Shengxiang is the standard tomboy, and is even referred to as such at times. Her brother worries how he is going to marry her off and it seems as if Zhuge Liang is the only man who does not underestimate her or patronize her. She is eager to fight directly in the battles and plays a pivotal role in a storyline that was cut from the shortened version. That storyline, as I implied earlier, could have been handled better, but it did give her a lot to do. Xiao Qiao is about as traditionally feminine as one can get, but she displays a hint of steel that comes out when necessary. She understands her husband Zhou Yu more than anyone else, including when it comes to war tactics, philosophy, and fighting style. She also plays a pretty big role in a certain subplot. Though the road that led to that subplot and the outcome of the subplot may make one roll oneâ€™s eyes, her active role in it is pretty good. The first time watching the movie, I thought that she could go further with what she did, but I realized why she did not do that the second time around. And, while the outcome is a bit silly, it leads to one of the most convoluted climax that I have seen in a while. In a movie with so many men being manly and whatnot, it is nice to have two very different women play their parts; one taking the more masculine track and the other not so much. John Woo has come a ways. Sure, he could have done better, but he could have done a lot worse. And few watch a John Woo film for subtlety. At the very least, it beats the character of Jenny in The Killer. She was awful.
This movie is far from perfect and I could go on about small issues in the storytelling or John Wooâ€™s questionable assertion that the movie is anti-war if I really wanted to. One thing that I kept finding distracting, though, was the background in the battle scenes. Much of the depiction of battle is pretty awesome, but there are little details in places that can detract from said awesomeness. I know that a lot of men were used for these scenes but, for some reason, they seem rather empty. Other movies like Braveheart and even the Lord of the Rings series have similar issues at times, but it seemed particularly jarring here. I realize that the main focus was on the foreground, especially when the super badass elite warriors of Wu and Shu were individually going up against a dozen of Cao Caoâ€™s men. Yet, there were supposed to be thousands of troops on the battlefield, and I was not seeing it. Perhaps John Woo had been too used to more intimate and small-scale fight scenes that he could not really cover hi bases well enough.
The first battle started off showing around sixteen or seventeen-thousand troops about to descend on around nine-hundred Shu fighters and the refugees. When the actual fighting started, though, it looked to be just a few hundred men fighting each other. There was empty space here and there which seemed could have been fixed in post or something. It becomes really jarring during the final sequence of that battle. The CGI in this movie is not always necessarily the best, at least when compared to Western blockbusters, but even a little bit of subpar CGI touchups of the battle scenes could have made them seem larger in scope. The second battle is just bizarre and the scope is just one issue. The third battle scene is fine for the much of the first half, but seems to get smaller in scale once night turns to day.
For all of John Wooâ€™s talk about how the movie shows how a smaller force can beat a larger one, there are moments when it really does not feel that way. Then again, in the scenes at Zhou Yuâ€™s military camp, the implication is that he is addressing his entire military force, but there can be no more than two hundred men in the area at a time and they are not even taking up all the available space. Simply ignoring the background in favor for the action in the foreground is impossible in those scenes.
One criticism that I am not sure that I can get behind is the treatment of the horses in this movie. There have been claims that the movie used trip-wires to get the horses to fall, which could lead to grave injury or death for the horse. John Woo insists that the horses involved in the falls were stunt horses and they were fine. While I can raise my eyebrows at some of the thematic claims that he has made about this movie and others of his, I see no reason to doubt his words regarding the horses. There are those who donâ€™t believe him, but it is really up to them to prove his guilt, not up to him to prove his innocence. And besides, there have already been serious doubts cast as to the legitimacy of those American Humane Association â€œNo Animals Were Harmedâ€ disclaimers for Hollywood movies, so let us not get on our high horses just yet, particularly if in a part of the United States where it is legal to slaughter horses.
So, where was I? Well, yes. The movie is good. Flawed, very long, but quite enjoyable. If you want an accurate depiction of the battle, there are several really long books about here. What you get here is an enjoyable movie. Or two enjoyable movies. Or one kind of enjoyable movie if you get the wrong version. Donâ€™t do that last one. Get the right version, get in the mood for five-hours in front of the screen, and have a good time. Oh, and try and figure out which actor is from Japan. You can tell from the yelling.
Next Time: Attack the Gas Station (South Korea: 1999, approx. 120 minutes).
Time After Next: Rang de Basanti (India: 2006, approx. 165 minutes).