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Red Cliff

A Soulless Epic

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars.

A growing Hollywood career for John Woo soon became stale, so he decided to return to his native China in an attempt to creatively recharge. Hes back with the epic, Chinese language Red Cliff, telling the true story of events during the Three Kingdoms period of ancient China. Its definitely a step up from 2003s Paycheck, and while it has some great action, its ultimately a choppy epic devoid of a true emotional core.

Despite being a true story, the arc is fairly familiar. Tyrant Prime Minister Cao Cao (Fengyi Zhang) has taken control of northern China and has decided to crush all his enemies out of arrogance rather than strategy. Two dissenters, Sun Quan (Chen Chang) and Liu Bei (Young You), from the kingdoms of Xu in the west and Wu in the south, respectively. They decide to band together to defeat the millions strong Cao Cao. As the two come together and prepare for what will be The Battle of Red Cliff, its Wu strategist Zhou You (Tony Leung) who becomes the focal point through interactions with his wife Xiao Quaio (Chiling Lin) as he ponders his future.

From the beginning, the English narration in a Chinese language film is jarring and questions Woos intentions as an artist and businessman. Like Michael Bay, Woo seems to be preoccupied more with action than story. The action is actually quite intense and aside from a few obvious scenes with actors tied to harnesses, the innumerable fight scenes are what make the film worth watching.

Its when Woo tries to interject story that the film drags. The story of Zhou You and his wife Xiao Quaio feels superfluous until she becomes integral to the final battle. What should be an emotional investment in these characters becomes a shrug at the clichd battle for Zhou Yous people and wife. Woos attempt to personalize these characters for the audience are tepid at best.

The film is undeniably beautiful and is an amazing look at life in Ancient China. Woo succeeds in painting a picture that is both breathtaking and exact in its execution. If only he worked as hard crafting a story as he did creating a picture, this film would have a more lasting effect.