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Featured Blu-ray / DVD Review: Red Cliff

March 24th, 2010

Red Cliff - Buy from Amazon: DVD (Theatrical Version), DVD (International Version), Blu-ray (Theatrical Version), or Blu-ray (International Version

Red Cliff is the latest film from John Woo and it marks his return to China after an absence of nearly 20 years. This epic was released in its native market (and many Asian markets) as a two-part, four-and-a-half hour long film. In this marke,t it was cut down to a single film of two-and-a-half hours in length. Fortunately, the studio is releasing both versions on the home market. Unfortunately, I only have the shorter version, which is called the "Theatrical Version".

The film is based on the real life events of 208 A.D., events that marked the end of the Han Dynasty. At the time, most of China was ruled by Emperor Xian, but the real power was held by one of his generals, Cao Cao. In an attempt to consolidate power, Cao Cao convinces the Emperor to declare war on the western kingdom (led by Liu Bei) and the southern kingdom (led by Sun Quan).

The Emperor's forces easily defeat the western army at the Battle of Changban. Afterwards, Liu Bei takes the remnants of his army to the south to meet with Sun Quan in the hopes of forming an alliance. However, there is great suspicion between the two sides, while a lot of Sun Quan's men do not want to provoke Cao Cao into attacking. Liu Bei is able to convince Grand Viceroy Zhou Yu that the only way to survive is to join forces against the superior numbers of Cao Cao. But an alliance built on desperation might not be able to withstand the test ahead of them, even with their combined political genius.

(On a side note, normally when it comes to historical epics like this, I'm more willing to get into spoiler territory than with most films. Odds are if you are interested in World War II movies, you probably know who won in the end. If there's a movie about a plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler, it's not a spoiler to say that it failed. However, while this movie is about a very important chapter in Chinese history, most people reading this will not have learned about it in school. Therefore, I'm more concerned about spoilers than I would be with other real life movies.)

This is an historical epic. The key word here is, "epic". Even in its shorter form, there are still several massive battle scenes featuring hundreds, even thousands of troops. There was also a very cool historical vibe to it. And not just the costumes: it felt like I was watching a turning point in history, which is not easy to pull off. As a spectacle to watch, it is certainly worth it. However, there were also some issues that made my recommendation harder. For instance, there were a few points where I thought the story jumped faster than it should have. But I am not sure if this is based on deficiencies in the pacing or the fact that I know is was intended to be told as two movies and its running time was sliced in half. By knowing the movie was cut in half, I might have been subconsciously looking for parts that felt rushed. Also, it lacked the character development needed for the film to be a true masterpiece. Again, this might have been cut out of the international version. I really wish I had both versions to compare. I would love to be able to say, "The theatrical version is good, but the international version is great." Or perhaps I would say, "The theatrical version is good, but has flaws. The international version has the same flaws, it just nearly twice as long."

Some of the parts I seriously doubt would improve in the longer version. For instance, Liu Bei, Sun Quan, and Zhou Yu always seem to outthink Cao Cao at every step. If this happened once or twice, it would have been acceptable. But it happens a bit too much and loses its dramatic punch.

A bit of a warning: watch the film in the original Mandarin (with subtitles). I checked out the English-language track and the voice actor they choose to dub Cao Cao instantly reminded me of Master Pain from Kung Pow: Enter the Fist. It's hard to take a movie seriously after that.

There are four versions of this movie that came out this week, I have only one of them, the Blu-ray (Theatrical Version). On this Blu-ray there are only a few extras, but the first is The Making of Red Cliff: The Long Road. They are not kidding about long, as it is over two hours in length. Unfortunately it is in non-anamorphic widescreen and the picture quality is suspect, even for Standard Definition. There is a 27-minute long interview with John Woo. It covers some of the same ground of the documentary, but it is also worth checking out. There is a 5-minute HDNet preview, which is fluff compared to the other extras. Finally, there are nearly 100 storyboards.

You can set bookmarks and the disc is BD-Live enabled (all it says is 'Check back for updates') but I think that's all there is in terms of Blu-ray exclusives. The Blu-ray costs about 35% more, and given the film's exceptional picture and sound quality, it is worth the extra money. That said, I think the Blu-ray (International Version) is the best deal of all.

The Verdict

Red Cliff is perhaps not the masterpiece its Tomatometer Score would indicate, but it is still an amazing sight to behold. Even in its shortened "Theatrical Version" it has a lot of amazing battle scenes, though it feels like the character development was sacrificed at times. At the very least it is worth checking out, while the Blu-ray (International Version appears to be the best deal if you are looking to buy.

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