Shortly after we moved to Singapore in 2008, my husband and I bought a big flat-screen television. The movie Red Cliff II was being used to demo the screens in all the shops we visited, so we named our television “Cliff”.
Until now, though, neither of us ever watched either of the two movies. I decided it was time to check them off the list of DVDs we own of movies we’ve never seen.
There’s a version that combines the two movies into one; that’s not what we’ve got. We’ve got the two-part version of Red Cliff that was released in Singapore. The audio is in Mandarin and English subtitles are available.
Honestly, though, half of the movie doesn’t even have subtitles because nobody’s talking, thus there’s nothing to translate.
I am starting to think that maybe a lot of Chinese movies have a common plot structure that requires a long buildup in which we go around meeting all the characters and forming some kind of alliance, so that later each of them can do whatever he’s known for doing as part of the group effort to overcome the enemy. I called this “collect the whole set” in Kung Fu Yoga, which I recently watched, but Shaolin Soccer also took what I thought was an unusually long time to get going. Maybe it’s not unusual after all.
I could try to make some kind of point about individualistic vs. collective social philosophy (or about martial-arts mashup movie titles), but I think it would be misplaced. Chinese movies with a group of protagonists still have a central hero, and Hollywood movies sometimes have a group or coalition of protagonists. The difference I’m noticing is a superficial one of how long it takes to meet all the characters: a quarter of the movie, or half of it. In either case, the midway point marks a significant upping of the stakes.
Keep reading for a plot summary with SPOILERS as well as a list of the main characters and a surprising observation about one of them.
Plot Summary for Red Cliff
We see ancient, corroded, green bronze weapons slowly transform into shinier versions. We are going back in time.
In the year 208 in China, in a time and place where war technology consists mainly of sharp things like arrows and swords, a young, nervous emperor in a hilariously fancy hat is intimidated into letting a commander named Cao Cao lead an army against supposed rebels Sun Quan and Liu Bei to the south. A conscientious objector is summarily executed.
Collect the Whole Set
Liu Bei’s people are evacuating and his army is fighting Cao Cao’s. Liu Bei’s army uses reflective shields to blind the attacking enemies when they charge. Meanwhile, General Zhao Yun manages to save Liu Bei’s heir, but not his wife.
In the course of the battle between Liu Bei’s men and Cao Cao’s, we meet Liu Bei’s sworn brothers, Zhang Fei and Guan Yu.
Liu Bei’s military strategist Zhuge Liang sets out calmly fanning himself with a bird wing to bring the two rebels into an alliance to resist Cao Cao, who meanwhile joins forces with Admiral Cai Mao and Admiral Zhang Yun.
Sun Quan is not eager to ally with Liu Bei. Zhuge Liang approaches his viceroy, Zhou Yu, who loves music. After we see Zhou Yu fix the flute of a boy playing a tune near where he is drilling troops, a man complains that a water buffalo has been stolen by soldiers. General Gan Xing demands to know who it was. Zhuge Liang observes that the thieves must have muddy feet, but Zhou Yu ensures that all the soldiers’ feet are muddied, so that no soldier can be punished. Then he offers a buffalo to the man and apologizes.
Zhuge Liang, who is apparently good at everything, assists at Zhou Yu’s stable with the birth of a filly named Meng Meng and meets Zhou Yu’s wife Xiao Qiao. When he plays music with Zhou Yu, it becomes clear to him that Zhou Yu will join the cause. (Lu Su also supports the alliance.)
We learn that Cao Cao lusts after Xiao Qiao, whom he glimpsed years ago before she married Zhou Yu. Problems with wind are foreshadowed.
Sun Quan and his sister Shang Xiang go on a tiger hunt; Sun Quan overcomes his feelings of inferiority, screws up his courage, and decides to ally with Liu Bei.
Xiao Qiao wants Zhou Yu to make love, not war; either she’s already pregnant or she will be soon.
The allies are brought together: Liu Bei is weaving shoes from straw. When the alliance seems in danger of disintegrating on the spot, it is pointed out that even weak straws, when bound together, are capable of holding fast.
Shang Xiang wants to fight with the men; when Lu Su laughs at her, she disables his horse.
Cao Cao (who is entranced by an entertainer resembling Xiao Qiao) receives a blank message from Sun Quan refusing to surrender; he executes the messenger. The allies mourn the first death of the war.
The allies discuss plans to fight. Zhuge Liang suggests the ancient bagua formation which kinda looks like the pattern on a turtle shell but is really something to do with, uh, Taoist cosmology. The bagua is the name for the octagon shape you get when you put the trigram whole and half sticks from the I Ching around a yin/yang symbol, kinda like on the South Korean flag.
Shang Xiang lures Cao Cao’s cavalry into a dusty plain where the outnumbered allies wait in bagua formation. The trap is sprung!
Menacing drumbeats announce each new attack:
- arrows are fired
- allies hamstring and stab from behind shields
- General Gan Xing attacks
- General Guan Yu attacks
- General Zhao Zilong attacks
- General Zhang Fei attacks
- lassos pull soldiers off horses
The remaining enemies gather in the center and spin around inside a wall of shields, killing people with their spears. This formation is attacked with a spiky rope that destroys it.
Zhou Yu fights and gets shot with an arrow, but the enemy flag and general are captured and the survivors flee.
Conclusion and Sequel Set Up
Cao Cao’s fleet arrives opposite Red Cliff and sets up a camp. Destruction by fire is foreshadowed.
Allies celebrate with wine. Sun Quan proposes that his sister Shang Xiang marry Liu Bei, but she is offended and knocks Liu Bei out. Zhuge Liang sends her across the river to spy on Cao Cao’s army.
Cao Cao is clearly obsessed with Xiao Qiao. He addresses his concubine by her name and makes her serve tea as he remembers Xiao Qiao doing. Some of his men start to suspect he started the war just so he could fight Zhou Yu and steal his wife.
Zhou Yu and Zhuge Liang sadly predict that in the future they may face each other as enemies. Meanwhile, they plot to use Cao Cao’s paranoia to eliminate the two admirals on his side.
Zhuge Liang releases a messenger bird which flies across the river over the vast enemy navy to deliver a message to Shang Xiang, who, disguised as a soldier, is watching enemy fighters play a game of cuju (which resembles soccer). Cao Cao feels confident in spite of the defeat of his cavalry.
Will the allies be able to burn Cao Cao’s ships as it seems they plan to do? Those of us not familiar with the classic Chinese novel Romance of the Three Kingdoms won’t know until Red Cliff II.
The Characters of Red Cliff
There are a lot of them, they have Chinese names with an astounding number of x’s, y’s, z’s and q’s in them, and sometimes men in armor look kinda similar on screen. Who are they all again?
Good Guys: Liu Bei and Friends
- Zhuge Liang aka Kong Ming, military strategist (the clever guy with the wing fan)
- Zhao Yun aka Zhao Zilong, general (the guy who saved the baby at the beginning)
- Zhang Fei, general (the guy with the wild-looking hair, eyebrows, beard)
- Guan Yu, general (the guy with the long beard, blade on a pole*)
Good Guys: Sun Quan and Friends
- Zhou Yu, viceroy (the guy who loves music)
- Xiao Qiao, Zhou Yu’s wife (the woman who just wants peace for her people)
- Gan Xing, general (the guy with the angry eyebrows)
- Shang Xiang, sister (the warrior woman who spies for the good guys)
Bad Guy: Cao Cao
The guy with the big army and no friends who’s obsessed with Zhou Yu’s wife Xiao Qiao.
Zhuge Liang stole Will Turner’s beard!
Military strategist Zhuge Liang gave me the unshakeable impression of being Will Turner’s long-lost twin, despite not looking like him at all. I think it’s the combination of moustache, goatee, sideburns, and long hair pulled back. It’s not just me, though; supposedly, we all easily confuse people who have the same hair.
This non-Chinese fan’s very enthusiastic and helpful (if strongly worded) positive review and guide to the characters.
Other John Woo movies:
- Paycheck (2003)
I like it better than most (all?) other movies made from Philip K. Dick short stories (Total Recall, Minority Report, Blade Runner).
- Mission Impossible II (2000)
Not as good as the first Tom Cruise Mission Impossible movie, but still not bad.
Other Chinese History/Legend movies:
- Mulan (2009)
Not the Disney one, the live-action Chinese one.