Considering the two movies as parts of a whole, it’s not surprising that the first one is more playful and triumphant and the second one is bloodier and more sombre. The theme of the first movie is that David Can Beat Goliath; the theme of the second movie is that War Is Bad. I think the two parts work well together, and I liked both movies.
Keep reading for a plot summary with SPOILERS in the form of a beat sheet in the style described in Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat.
Plot Summary for Red Cliff II
A summary of Part I reintroduces the major characters and their conflict. There’s a nice scene-changing effect that turns the screen into a canvas that then rips apart to reveal the next scene. (Unfortunately, this device is used throughout the movie rather than just in the scene jumps in the prologue.)
Soldiers in Cao Cao‘s camp are sick, possibly because they’re not used to the southern climate in the land they’ve invaded. While spying on Cao Cao’s army, Shang Xiang admires and befriends a cujo player named Sun Shucai who thinks she’s a fellow soldier. She nicknames herself “Piggy” for her purported greedy eating habits, and he nicknames himself “Pit” for the same reason.
Meanwhile, Zhou Yu, cultured warrior that he is, uses focused mental powers to land three arrows in a jar in a game of pitch pot. The allies’ brains will be needed to win against Cao Cao’s superior numbers.
Catalyst / Debate
Cao Cao, deciding to kill two birds with one stone, cooks up a nefarious plan to send the dead corpses of sick soldiers across the river to the allies’ camp. Nobody likes this idea apart from him, but his people have to follow his orders.
The allies fall for the trick. Soldiers fall sick, and, moreover, everyone gets super depressed by the fact that Cao Cao would do such a thing. He should have burned the bodies! The allies do so instead.
Disheartened, Liu Bei and his friends (Zhao Yun, Zhang Fei, and Guan Yu) leave Sun Quan and his viceroy Zhou Yu; the alliance is dissolved. Zhuge Liang, the mastermind of the alliance, remains behind with Sun Quan to fight Cao Cao, who is delighted to hear about the effects of his psychological warfare.
Zhou Yu, Sun Quan’s viceroy, does an angry sword dance. His wife Xiao Qiao muses about ending the war with tea rather than fighting: she wants to protect her people from death and destruction.
Meanwhile, preparations for war continue. Cao Cao’s borrowed navy demonstrates its ability to join and separate its individual ships. Cao Cao makes plans to send Jiang Gan, an old friend of Zhou Yu, to try to persuade Zhou Yu to surrender.
Shang Xiang draws maps of the camp, unknowingly assisted by her friend, who carries her on his shoulders in a game of “ride high”.
Break into Two
Zhou Yu and Zhuge Liang make a deadly bet. Two major problems they have identified are that Cao Cao has two clever admirals on his side and that Sun Quan’s soldiers do not have enough arrows. Zhou Yu promises that within three days he will assassinate the admirals, and Zhuge Liang promises that within three days he will procure 100,000 arrows. If either of them fails, he will forfeit his life.
B Story / Promise of the Premise
Zhou Yu eats, drinks, and reminisces with his old friend Jiang Gan. He accidentally-on-purpose lets him see a “secret note” that says the admirals are planning to betray and behead Cao Cao, then tells his friend it’s a joke. He also lets him overhear a conversation about how his friends the admirals might help him get some arrows. Jiang Gan tells Zhou Yu that Cao Cao started the war because he wanted to steal Xiao Qiao.
Zhuge Liang has predicted fog, and it arrives right when he said it would. He takes a small fleet of ships covered in straw and provokes the enemy’s navy, which obliges him by firing volleys of arrows blindly into the mist. The arrows, which bury themselves harmlessly in the straw, are so numerous that the boats start to lean to the side. Zhuge Liang smugly signals for them to turn around and face the other way, and repeats the whole procedure. Finally, he evacuates one of the arrow-collecting ships and sets it free to float towards Cao Cao’s camp.
Meanwhile, Jiang Gan has returned to Cao Cao and reported that the admirals are not to be trusted. Cao Cao’s advisers warn him that the note Jiang Gan saw must be a fake, but Cao Cao is paranoid enough to start to doubt his admirals. Then he learns that they have wasted thousands of arrows by firing into the fog, which is such an obviously stupid thing to do that they must have had some hidden purpose. When an arrow-collecting ship conveniently materializes at the dock where he is confronting the admirals, Cao Cao is confirmed in his belief that the admirals were trying to help his enemies. He orders them executed on the spot. Too late he realizes there is no one whose expertise matches theirs, no one who can wisely guide the navy.
Back on the other side of the river, time has run out for Zhou Yu and Zhuge Liang. Zhuge Liang has delivered many arrows, but the tally has not yet reached the promised total. Sun Quan’s people threaten him with the death penalty. Then, a few more bundles of arrows show up and he is saved. Zhou Yu’s task has not been completed, however, as far as anyone knows. Perhaps he, too, should face the death penalty? Ah, but here comes a bird carrying a note from Shang Xiang. The admirals have been executed, thus Zhou Yu has kept his word.
Jiang Gan, the gullible friend used as a double agent, is poisoned by Cao Cao.
Bad Guys Close In
Shang Xiang almost gets caught, but her friend helps her escape the camp after she lies and says she is going home to visit her mother.
Cao Cao visits his sick soldiers and gives a speech that convinces them to stand up and fight for him anyway.
When Shang Xiang delivers a detailed map on a cloth wrapped around her body, her brother and the other men are more concerned with her lack of clothing than they are pleased with her amazing success.
Cao Cao plots to use fire to attack Sun Quan. Zhuge Liang, however, has detailed knowledge of weather patterns, as in fact we’ve already seen, and predicts an unusual shift in the normal wind pattern: the wind will stop blowing towards Sun Quan’s army and start blowing towards Cao Cao’s. That will enable Sun Quan’s army to use fire attacks, one of the tactics recommended in Sun Tzu’s Art of War. Xiao Qiao overhears the plans, which hinge on some very precise timing, now that both armies are poised for battle.
Sun Quan’s General Gan Xing instructs his men to make bigger and bigger firebombs with fish oil, until the resulting explosion singes his hair and clothing.
All is Lost
Zhou Yu notices that Xiao Qiao is missing and finds a letter she left behind. The letter explains that she has gone across the river to confront Cao Cao and that she is pregnant with a child she has named Ping An (safety). She literally wants to bring peace into the world.
Dark Night of the Soul
Zhou Yu is devastated that his wife is gone and may be doomed to death. He pooh-poohs plans to rescue her because they would interfere with the impending attack.
Liu Bei and his generals are celebrating a traditional festival by making rice dumplings. They are just waiting around, feeling useless and guilty.
Break into Three
Zhou Yu is comforted when those around him share their rice dumplings with him in sympathy and solidarity.
Liu Bei’s generals decide not to wait around any more; they pick up their weapons and prepare to join the imminent fight.
Xiao Qiao arrives at Cao Cao’s camp and pleads with him for peace on her own behalf. Knowing how important she is to him, she threatens suicide, but fails to convince Cao Cao to call off the battle. She manages to distract him, however, by beginning a mesmerising tea ceremony. Cao Cao joins her and takes part, taking time to savor the tea and listen to her words. She chides him for having a too-full cup yet still wishing for more. He gets a headache.
Meanwhile, Sun Quan’s soldiers have been waiting in the dark on ships, watching a water clock, waiting for the wind to change. Finally, it does. Xiao Qiao has bought them the time they needed.
Sun Quan’s fire ships attack. Now that the wind favors them, they can destroy the navy pretty efficiently.
Liu Bei’s soldiers show up to help; apparently the dissolution of the alliance was all part of Zhuge Liang’s secret plan!
General Gan Xing dies because he protected a soldier injured while storming the gate of Cao Cao’s compound. He personally explodes the gate using the last of the firebombs.
It’s daytime now, and the armies are fighting with arrows, spears, and more fire. The allies advance into Cao Cao’s burning compound in these weird, creeping shield box formations that protect them from all sides.
Cao Cao’s advisers counsel him to surrender, but he says he would prefer for everyone to die for him. This attitude is what makes him unambiguously a movie villain and not just a stubborn guy with a goal that’s incompatible with someone else’s goal.
Individual deaths matter. In particular, Shang Xiang’s friend Sun Shucai’s death matters. She finds him in the battle, and he recognizes her but immediately gets shot in the chest with an arrow. Devastated, she listens as he thanks her for returning to find him as promised. Two more arrows end his life. She vows to take the body back to his hometown.
Cao Cao’s generals, bitter about the unwinnable war fought over one man’s Helen of Troy, decide to go kill Xiao Qiao.
The battle ends in a showdown between Cao Cao and Zhou Yu, with Xiao Qiao being held hostage. Zhao Yun saves her and Sun Quan fires an arrow that destroys Cao Cao’s hairdo. The allies express their utter contempt for him and declare the battle over, emphatically pointing out that “There is no victory here”. The battleground is littered with bodies and dotted with smoky fires, and all for what?
Zhou Yu gives Zhuge Liang Meng Meng, the filly he helped deliver in Red Cliff Part I, before the formation of the alliance. They express their mutual respect, though they know they will likely face one another as enemies in a future battle. The rainbows in the beautiful background underscore the happy-ending-as-new-beginning and the theme of promises honored in the face of obstacles.