But John Woo’s epic – in the true meaning of the word – Red Cliff has done just that; left me, open-mouthed and popcorn forgotten, staring at the screen and unable to move. Quite literally, trembling in my seat. From the opening sequences of Zhao Yun’s mythological bravery as he attempts to rescue Liu Bei’s trapped family, to the final assault on Cao Cao given so exquisitely gracefully by Xiao Qiao over a cup of Chinese tea, this is three hours of glorious, sensuous, overwhelming and occasionally bloodily terrifying cinematography.
There were too many moments during which I completely forgot to breathe.
If you’re familiar with the Koei game Dynasty Warriors, you’ll know the plot – these are the final battles of the end of the Han Dynasty and the rise of The Three Kingdoms – though Woo deliberately refrained from using the romanticised version of the history. His need for authenticity really shows: it’s good to see Emperor Cao Cao, traditionally a black hat, show heroism, courage and obsessive love as well as cruelty and dominance… every scene has a powerful character, a strong driving force and colossal impact. This isn’t about ‘good’ and ‘evil’, this is about bitter politics and heroic savagery. It’s filmed like a fantasy – but it carries that taste of grit-between-the-teeth that always marks Woo’s work. It’s real.
The battle sequences are, quite literally, awesome – more believable than the equivalent CGI in LOTR. The precise military strategy of Zhuge Liang underpins the legendary heroism of the generals – and gives them a solid edge of warrior credibility. This was what 300 didn’t do – the tactics and fighting are historically accurate, detailed and utterly believable (the Spartans weren’t skirmishers, dammit!). You’ll find yourself watching the astounding ‘tortoise’ sequence, hands gripping the edge of your seat and heart thumping in your mouth… and every drum-beat, every troop movement, are both almighty and exact.
As well as the violence, Red Cliff has many moments of gentleness. While Woo can’t film a sex scene for toffee, the warrior maiden Sun Shangxiang, spying in Cao Cao’s camp, has a wonderful and doomed friendship with an unexpectedly promoted footballer – and the relationship between Liu Bei and Zhuge Liang frankly verges on homoerotic.
There’s not enough space to talk about every marvel this film showed – siege engines and blossoming greek fire and a vast flotilla of burning boats, swordplay and wirework too polished to describe… too many wonders for words. And it’s not just the fighting; it’s breadth of vision and sensitivity and cross-cutting, a measured and beautiful cadence to the language, and moments of the most touching humanity.
This isn’t just ‘Hardboiled with spears’. Reader, writer, watcher or critic, this will make you re-evaluate every battle-scene you’ve ever imagined…
…and do them bigger.