Blu-ray Review HTF Blu-ray Review: RED CLIFF, Original International Version

Discussion in 'Blu-ray and UHD' started by Michael Reuben, Apr 13, 2010.

  1. Michael Reuben

    Michael Reuben Studio Mogul

    Joined:
    Feb 12, 1998
    Messages:
    21,769
    Likes Received:
    2
    [​IMG]
    Red Cliff (Blu-ray)
    Original International Version


    Studio: Magnolia Home Entertainment
    Rated: NR
    Film Length: 288 minutes
    Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1
    HD Encoding: 1080p
    HD Codec: VC-1
    Audio: Mandarin DTS-HD MA 5.1
    Subtitles: Englihs; English SDH; Spanish
    MSRP: $34.98
    Disc Format: 2 50GB
    Package: Keepcase
    Theatrical Release Date: July 10, 2008 (pt. 1, China); Jan. 8, 2009 (pt. 2, China); Nov. 20, 2009 (U.S. version, New York)
    Blu-ray Release Date: Mar. 23, 2010




    Introduction:

    There is hardly a frame of John Woo’s Red Cliff that does not announce its epic ambitions. The film is big in every sense of the word. Nearly five hours long, it was released in two parts, Kill Bill style, in 2008 and 2009. Its budget, estimated at $80 million, is the largest ever for an Asian-financed film, and its success justified the investment – the first part alone outgrossed Titanic in China. The filmmakers built elaborate outdoor sets, battled the elements to stage massive battle scenes on land and on water using thousands of extras, and then enhanced those scenes with CGI to expand them beyond history and into the realm of myth.

    Still, as successful as Red Cliff was abroad, distributors didn’t think American audiences would show up en masse for one subtitled film about ancient feuding Chinese warlords, let alone two. So Woo’s chief editor sat down and carved out a single film from both parts that ran two and a half hours and was released here in arthouses. Reviews were generally favorable, though one called the U.S. cut “a trailer for a terrific film”. Magnolia Home Entertainment has now released both versions on Blu-ray. Only the full version is reviewed here.


    The Feature:


    I’m probably typical of American viewers, in that I was unfamiliar with either the history or the legends of the so-called “Three Kingdoms” era in Chinese history (roughly 169-280 A.D) before seeing Red Cliff. But as the extras on the Blu-ray make clear, many of the characters of Red Cliff are well-known to the general audience in China. Schoolchildren still recite poems about their exploits. The era is the subject of a famous 14th Century novel entitled Romance of the Three Kingdoms, but Woo did extensive historical research for the film – and then embellished history as he saw fit. There really was a Battle of Red Cliff, but like Homer in the Iliad or Shakespeare in his plays, Woo is less concerned with literal accuracy than with exploring the nature of heroism, courage, honor and friendship using these larger-than-life figures who seized his imagination when he was a boy. To borrow a phrase from another film, Woo is “printing the legend”.

    It’s Woo’s grand aspirations that help make Red Cliff approachable for Western audiences. While the film is loaded with meticulous period detail, and while it undoubtedly resonates for Chinese audiences at countless levels that a Westerner will miss, one can come to the film cold and understand exactly what’s at stake. Just as Woo never let himself get bogged down in the minutia of police procedure in his Hong Kong crime films, he never lets historical trivia overwhelm the operatic sweep of Red Cliff. For all the film’s scale, the plot is relatively straightforward. The majesty is in the execution.

    In the summer of 208, Chancellor Cao Cao (Fengyi Zhang), an arrogant, ambitious and experienced warrior, bullies the young emperor of the Eastern Han Dynasty into approving a campaign to subdue two southern warlords, Sun Quan (Chen Chang) and Liu Bei (Yong You). The Chancellor sets out with a huge army, and his superior numbers quickly overwhelm the army of Lord Liu Bei. Lord Lui Bei is a seasoned veteran and a caring leader, who orders his forces to hold out just long enough to give the civilian population an opportunity to escape. Three of Lord Liu Bei’s generals distinguish themselves for their courage and martial arts prowess in this fierce battle against superior odds. They are General Guan Yu (Ba Sen Zha Bu); General Zhang Fei (Jinsheng Zang); and General Zhao Yun (Jun Hu), who does Lord Lui Bei the additional heroic service of rescuing his infant son when enemy forces invade their village. (Woo has said that this rescue has long been one of his favorite stories and that he had previously staged it with Chow Yun-Fat, presumably referring to Hard Boiled.)

    As they retreat, Lord Liu Bei and his chief strategist, Zhuge Liang (Takeshi Kaneshiro), decide that their only choice is to strike an alliance with rival warlord Sun Quan. In an effort to persuade Lord Sun Quan to entertain this proposal, Strategist Zhuge Liang approaches the Lord’s most trusted commander and adviser, the eminent Viceroy Shou Yu (Tony Leung). The Strategist and the Viceroy meet at a fortress on the banks of the Yangtze River known as Red Cliff. These two men, each loyal to his own lord, are the film’s true heroes. The alliance they forge will determine the future of China.

    The alliance doesn’t come easily, and as the Viceroy and the Strategist become acquainted, the audience gets to know them better. We also meet the Viceroy’s beautiful wife, Xiao Qiao (Chi-Ling Lin), who is the Helen of Troy in this story. It is rumored that Chancellor Cao Cao is obsessed with her and embarked on this campaign as a pretext to seize her as a spoil of war. Indeed, one of the Chancellor’s prized possessions is a drawing of Xiao Qiao, whom he once saw briefly when he was younger.

    Part 1 of Red Cliff concludes with a massive land battle that took three months to film. With Chancellor Cao Cao bearing down on them by both land and water, the newly allied forces decide to strike the first blow. They decoy his land forces into a trap using an unlikely lure: a small group of riders lead by Lord Sun Quan’s sister, Sun Shangxiang (Wei Zhao) – a character that Woo cheerfully admits to having invented because he wanted the story to include interesting women. Sun Shangxiang is an unabashed tomboy, who defies every traditional stereotype of a Chinese woman, but the advantage of such an anachronism in Red Cliff is the comedy that such a character brings to otherwise sober scenes (with an unexpected turn into pathos in Part 2).

    As the Chancellor’s army rides after this rag-tag group led by Sun Shangxiang, they have no idea that they’re being led into the trap of the “tortoise formation”. You’ll have to see the film to learn what that is, but if you’ve ever admired how Woo choreographs gunplay, you’ll be amazed at what he can accomplish with swords, shields, spears and other assorted ancient weapons. As the camera hovers, swoops, pans and glides over, under and around this intricately staged ballet of hand-to-hand combat, you realize that you’re seeing something unique in both style and scale. For my taste, it tops even the biggest battle sequences in Lord of the Rings.

    Chancellor Cao Cao suffers a defeat, but he is not a man whose resolve is easily broken. He gathers a huge fleet of powerful ships across the Yangtze from Red Cliff and prepares to attack. At the end of Part 1, Strategist Zhuge Liang releases a carrier pigeon from a parapet high over Red Cliff, and the camera follows it in a breathtaking, unbroken shot as the bird flies over the Yangtze and takes in the entirety of Chancellor Cao Cao’s forces and his massive encampment. The lines are drawn, and the final battle approaches.

    Part 2 of Red Cliff begins with a brief recap and then strikes a different tone. We enter a world of intrigue, as each side jockeys to improve its position in advance of the battle. The tomboy sister, Sun Shangxiang, has disguised herself as a man and infiltrated the Chancellor’s camp, from which she sends regular intelligence reports by carrier pigeon. She will eventually return to Red Cliff with a vast trove of information concealed in a novel fashion. Meanwhile, typhoid fever has broken out, leading to what can only be called an early form of biological warfare.

    The allies, Strategist Zhuge Liang and Viceroy Shou Yu, identify two strategic priorities, and each takes responsibility for one of them. The Strategist must resupply their forces with arrows, of which they are woefully short. The Viceroy must kill Chancellor Cao Cao’s two admirals, thereby depriving his fleet of experienced leadership. The Strategist and the Viceroy are now friends as well as comrades-in arms, and each man pledges to forfeit his head if he fails in his appointed task. It is not much of a spoiler to reveal that both men survive, but the specifics of how they accomplish their missions are wonderfully entertaining. Zhuge Liang’s “stealing of the arrows”, which involves precise weather prediction and a lot of straw, is an especially lively sequence.

    The final battle of Red Cliff begins with the so-called “burning ships”, in which the Chancellor’s much larger and more powerful fleet is overwhelmed by the strategic use of fire, wind and smaller, faster vessels – a kind of Chinese version of the English vs. the Spanish Armada. As impressive as this sequence is, it lacks the novelty of the “tortoise formation” in Part 1, because it involves the kind of pyrotechnic effects that we have seen in many other movies (though not often on this scale). The burning ships sequence is quickly followed by the storming of Chancellor Cao Cao’s headquarters, which involves elaborate choreography of men and medieval weaponry similar to that featured in Part 1 of Red Cliff. It all leads to a final confrontation with the Chancellor, in which anyone familiar with John Woo’s previous work will recognize his trademarks.

    Woo once said, in commenting on one of his American films,“I know how to photograph the hero.” It’s a useful insight into the style of Red Cliff. For all the immensity of the production and the extravagance of its scale, what makes Red Cliff work is the sincerity of Woo’s obvious admiration for the heroes that populate the film. The skill with which he makes these men into myths is evident even in scenes that don’t involve huge crowds, expensive CG or swashbuckling action.

    For example, take the initial introduction of Viceroy Shou Yu. We first see him presiding over a training session at Red Cliff, but Woo takes his time revealing the Viceroy to the audience. At first, we only catch glimpses of him, as the men work through their drills: from behind, from overhead, a hand gesturing, eyes in close-up. Then suddenly, the Viceroy gestures for everything to stop. He’s heard something. A boy is playing a pipe, but something is wrong. The notes are sour. Suddenly everyone realizes that the Viceroy’s chair is empty. He’s gone to find the pipe-player, where he picks up a knife, adjusts the pipe so that it plays in tune and returns it. The boy resumes playing, and now the tune is harmonious. The soundtrack picks up the tune with full orchestration, and if you hadn’t noticed before, now you realize that it’s the film’s main theme. As the Viceroy’s face breaks into a satisfied smile, the scene dissolves to vistas of the surrounding countryside. We’re in the Viceroy’s imagination now, hearing the pipe as he hears it, accompanying him while the notes momentarily carry him away. When the Viceroy’s attention returns to the business at hand – that is, to the Strategist he’s about to meet and to the audience who has been observing him – Woo’s elaborately shot, carefully edited introduction has made him an imposing presence with barely a word. (It doesn’t hurt that the actor playing the Viceroy, Tony Leung, who replaced Chow Yun-Fat at the last minute, has charisma to burn.)

    Woo has always straddled two worlds as a filmmaker. He fell in love with Western cinema, especially musicals, as a child. When he went to work for the Shaw Brothers in Hong Kong, he effectively redefined the action genre by staging fights and gun battles as if they were musical numbers through which characters expressed their inner lives. Such was the impact of Woo’s Hong Kong films that there is hardly an action sequence in contemporary cinema where his influence cannot be detected. (Quentin Tarantino gave a famous answer to a studio executive who conceded that Woo can direct action: “Yeah, and Michelangelo can paint ceilings.”) Woo was the first of the Hong Kong directors recruited by Hollywood, and he spent fifteen years making mainstream films such as Face/Off and Mission Impossible 2. Although he never felt entirely at home in the studio machine, he did learn the mechanics of big-budget filmmaking.

    When Woo returned to China in 2007, he found a new generation of filmmakers eager to learn the “dream machine” approach, and he entered into a new phase of the dialectic between his two worlds of movie-making. Red Cliff is a uniquely indigenous Chinese story; you can tell by the way no one wanted to release it here in its unadulterated form. But it’s been conceived on a scale and executed with a style and production values that used to be the unique province of Tinseltown. It gave the Chinese audience the same thing that Timur Bekmambetov’s Night Watch/Day Watch series gave Russian viewers: a big Hollywood movie in which they could recognize their own world. No wonder it was a hit.



    Video:

    The image on both discs is gorgeously detailed and colorful, with solid black levels and good shadow detail. Some amount of noise is apparent in occasional shots on Part 1, usually in scenes involving heavy smoke or fog, but I couldn’t be certain whether this was digital artifacting (and, if so, whether it was on the Blu-ray or the digital intermediate) or haziness in the original photography (or possibly the effects work). In any case, the noise is occasional and brief when it appears, and Part 2 is free of it completely. Given the extensive action sequences, I was alert for motion artifacts, but didn’t see any. Nor did I see any indications of excessive grain reduction or DNR. Making due allowance for an image that has been heavily processed because of digital effects, this is a film-like transfer.



    Audio:

    The DTS lossless track is both lively and powerful. Red Cliff offers many opportunities for aggressive sound effects, and the sound designers have taken full advantage. The thunder of horses galloping, the flight of thousands of arrows, the impact of various projectiles against shields: these are just a few of the sounds that fill your viewing room as Red Cliff unfolds. Also filling the room is the sweeping orchestral score by Japanese composer Tarô Iwashiro, which has drawn negative reactions from some but is, to my ear, deliberately designed to situate the film in an established tradition of epic cinema. The lossless track is full and rich, with deep bass extension.

    I can’t comment on the track’s reproduction of the dialogue, which is in Mandarin. The viewer has a choice between English and Spanish subtitles.



    Special Features:

    Disc 1:

    The Making of Red Cliff: The Long Road (SD) (1.85:1, centered in 16:9 frame) (2:25:50). In Mandarin with English subtitles, this massive documentary may not have the best video quality, but it provides on-the-scene footage recording the physical challenges of constructing the outdoor sets and shooting the huge battle sequences. The crew faced every conceivable mishap, including inclement weather, heat exhaustion, construction accidents, fussy babies, uncooperative animals and, on one occasion, director Woo losing his temper (which almost never happens). My only criticism is that, in many instances, the documentary crew appears to have been too respectful to find out what they were photographing. As a result, you often get too little information about what you’re seeing. For example, there may be people running and yelling, but there’s no voiceover (and, accordingly, no subtitled translation) to explain what’s happening.

    Storyboarding Red Cliff from Script to Screen with John Woo (HD) (18:02). A series of comparisons between the storyboards for key sequences and the finished film, interspersed with comments from director Woo.

    HDNet: A Look at Red Cliff (HD) (4:35). A short promotional piece that ran concurrently with the film’s U.S. release.

    Disc 2:

    A Conversation with John Woo: The Journey of Red Cliff (HD) (45:34). Interviewed by Leo Quionones, who is identified as a “talk show host”, Woo reflects on numerous aspects of the film, its production and its personal meaning for him as a filmmaker. The interview is clearly geared to an American audience, and the 2010 copyright date suggests that it was made specifically for the DVD and Blu-ray release.

    Storyboards. Ninety-eight additional storyboards from the film’s pre-production.

    Trailers. At startup both discs play trailers for The Warlords, District 13: Ultimatum, Ong Bak 2: The Beginning, Wonderful World and HDNet. These can be skipped with the chapter forward button and are separately available under the Special Features menu of each disc.

    BD-Live. It’s odd that Magnolia continues to include a link for BD-Live on its Blu-rays, since it still hasn’t gotten around to setting up a BD-Live site.



    In Conclusion:

    Even the best of Woo’s American works (e.g., Face/Off) always struck me as something of a letdown. I kept waiting for Woo to make a film with the same charge as The Killer or Hard Boiled or even A Better Tomorrow. Well, it didn’t happen in America, but it’s happened now. Clearly what Woo needed was to leave Hollywood and reconnect with material about which he was passionate. For all its scale, Red Cliff is a deeply personal film. That, too, is something you can feel in every frame.




    Equipment used for this review:

    Panasonic BDP-BD50 Blu-ray player (DTS-HD MA decoded internally and output as analog)
    Samsung HL-T7288W DLP display (connected via HDMI)
    Lexicon MC-8 connected via 5.1 passthrough
    Sunfire Cinema Grand amplifier
    Monitor Audio floor-standing fronts and MA FX-2 rears
    Boston Accoustics VR-MC center
    SVS SB12-Plus sub
     
  2. Neil Middlemiss

    Neil Middlemiss Producer
    Reviewer

    Joined:
    Nov 15, 2001
    Messages:
    3,376
    Likes Received:
    806
    Real Name:
    Neil Middlemiss
    Bravo, Michael. With your review, I can confidently hit the purchase button on Amazon. Thanks for another fine review!
     
  3. Robert Crawford

    Robert Crawford Moderator
    Moderator

    Joined:
    Dec 9, 1998
    Messages:
    29,310
    Likes Received:
    4,679
    Location:
    Michigan
    Real Name:
    Robert
    I watched the US version when it played on HDNET last December then bought the UK disc with the international version in January. I prefer the latter version. Also, the UK BRD appears to be the same as this release in Michael's review.




    Crawdaddy
     
  4. Joseph J.D

    Joseph J.D Cinematographer

    Joined:
    Dec 4, 2001
    Messages:
    2,695
    Likes Received:
    5
    Thanks for that excellent review, Michael.....I must absolutely purchase this disc now.
     
  5. Ron-P

    Ron-P Producer

    Joined:
    Jul 25, 2000
    Messages:
    6,285
    Likes Received:
    0
    Real Name:
    Ron
    Good review Michael, thanks.

    I rented part one awhile back and got about 30 minutes in and found it to be typical John Woo cheese, shut it off and returned the disc.
     
  6. TonyD

    TonyD Who do we think I am?
    Supporter

    Joined:
    Dec 1, 1999
    Messages:
    17,062
    Likes Received:
    366
    Location:
    Disney World and Universal Florida
    Real Name:
    Tony D.
    Hmm, I disagree with that.
    Anyway I rented the U.S. release of the long version when it hit blu a few weeks ago and watched it all in one sitting right away.
    The 5 hours with a couple of bathroom breaks went right by.
     
  7. Carlo Medina

    Carlo Medina Executive Producer

    Joined:
    Oct 31, 1997
    Messages:
    10,392
    Likes Received:
    606
    Wonderful review Michael. I was on the fence about buying this sight-unseen, but I've now purchased it through Amazon after reading your review (using of course the HTF links so we get the ad $$$)!
     
  8. Carlo Medina

    Carlo Medina Executive Producer

    Joined:
    Oct 31, 1997
    Messages:
    10,392
    Likes Received:
    606
    If you really loved it you'd have held it in and done without the bathroom breaks! [/url]

    Hmm, I disagree with that.
    Anyway I rented the U.S. release of the long version when it hit blu a few weeks ago and watched it all in one sitting right away.
    The 5 hours with a couple of bathroom breaks went right by.
     
  9. TonyD

    TonyD Who do we think I am?
    Supporter

    Joined:
    Dec 1, 1999
    Messages:
    17,062
    Likes Received:
    366
    Location:
    Disney World and Universal Florida
    Real Name:
    Tony D.
    Yeah, that won't happen anymore. not for a 2 hour movie.
     
  10. Adam Gregorich

    Owner

    Joined:
    Nov 20, 1999
    Messages:
    15,680
    Likes Received:
    675
    Location:
    The Other Washington
    Real Name:
    Adam

    Thanks for the review Michael, and thanks for the purchase Carlo!
     
  11. Carlo Medina

    Carlo Medina Executive Producer

    Joined:
    Oct 31, 1997
    Messages:
    10,392
    Likes Received:
    606
    Don't want to derail the thread but I have a question about how the Amazon purchasing works (and others reading might have an interest):

    If I use the HTF links and put stuff in my cart, and then later go back to Amazon and purchase, does HTF still get the $$$? Because I often bundle multiple BDs for purchase but I put them in my cart at different times, always going through HTF to the product to put them in the cart, but I may come back to the cart days later without going through HTF and then initiating the purchase.
     

Share This Page