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31 July 2011 @ 03:05 pm

Finally doing a "proper" review of the Red Cliff movies, other than just the slew of ETAs to this post. I should've typed this up earlier, but then the downtime happened and so I've at least caught up with that passage in the novel in full. As I said before, I did enjoy the films overall - the cinematography in particular was pretty, even when it got to the battles, which were all realistically painful and not just played for the lulz as the case often is in pure "action" movies. They also didn't seem that prevalent; sure, most of the battle scenes were long, but they were balanced out by equally long instances of non-battle sequences. I'm only saying this re: violence in the media, since I don't think is objectionable when it's obvious that there's a purpose to it (which there can be even when it's excessive: for example, the Kill Bill series). Right, why am I digressing about violence - point is, the aesthetic side was very striking and balanced. It should be noted that the two films span more than four hours and I watched all that in a day, without getting bored.

Now, I'm not gonna lie that even if everything else in the movies had sucked (which it didn't), they'd be worth watching for Zhuge Liang alone. He got an amazing, amazing portrayal; hands-down the best character in there. I suppose that's equal parts due to the writing (his characterization being quite complex, not to mention it jives with all the other major adaptations I've seen/read him in so far - observant, deceptively humble, idiosyncratic, ~mysterious, multi-talented, working on his own terms, ready to take action when necessary, A FREAKING KNOW-IT-ALL, etc.) and to the sheer awesomeness of Takeshi Kaneshiro's acting skillz. (And his Chinese-language skillz. I mean, how badass is it he speaks it well enough to play a legendary character of this magnitude. Absolutely watch this with subtitles if you ever do; I'm not sure if it's been dubbed but even if so, there's nothing like the original.) In short, <3. That's the most space-saving way to describe him, really. How can a character be such an all-round ball of awesome without descending into Gary Stu territory? If the character is Zhuge Liang, that's how. Holy shit, just that arrow scene.

I liked the interpretation of his relationship with Zhou Yu here (namely the part where they were never actually aiming to kill each other, whereas in the novel they do at first and then suddenly bam! buddies who write on their hands instead of talking; whoops, now Zhou Yu's trying to kill him again because he's too "threatening"; whoops, there goes Zhuge Liang trolling him next). There are two scenes featuring them that just got me: first was the one where they make music together because that was intense, and the other was the whole thing about them placing a bet on each other's heads and how that gets resolved. Zhou Yu by himself was a compelling character as well, and oddly cute e.g. in the flute-playing/repairing scene and whatnot.

The films also made me appreciate Sun Quan more than I did before. The part where Zhuge Liang comes to dispute with him was sizzling with tension and sneaky rhetorical devices. By the way, the comment about Zhuge Liang being shippable with lots of people was right and let me count the ways: Sun Quan, Zhou Yu, Sun Shangxiang, and Liu Bei. And all of it is utterly plausible. (Although I'm glad they didn't just shove the others aside in favour of some token het romance with Sun Shangxiang - she kicked ass in her own right and the idea that every woman on screen needs to be someone's wife or girlfriend is ridiculous anyway. What I personally appreciated even more, though, was that they kept this possible pairing as just one of the options on the same level with the gay 'ships, no more and no less valid. Sure, it's a status quo, but fair enough.)

About Sun Shangxiang, you can pretty much tell that the films gave her a boost in making her a prominent character, but I wouldn't say there's anything wrong with altering the source canon to be more inclusive. She goes on to spy in the enemy camp dressed as one of the soldiers and makes a naive but dedicated friend there, which I honestly thought was among the best bits of the plot because, even though it's not essential to the main events, it gives a human dimension to all the fighting that happens in the end (needless to say, the friendship ends tragically). What I also liked was the utter inconsequentiality of gender in this dynamic: while at the camp, Sun Shangxiang is the soldier nicknamed Piggy; when they meet later and she's again a princess, no fuss whatsoever is made about the shift in the face of all the important stuff that's going on. You know, this flat-out pwns most Western movies I can think of that downplay gender fluidity as "just crossdressing" or some sort of funny interlude without a bearing on the larger context.

Liu Bei et al didn't make as much of an appearance as I'd thought they would, though it was nice that the movie kept the details like his shoe-weaving or Zhang Fei's roar. I don't know if it's cute or amusing that everyone goes with the "Liu Bei is the nicest guy ever and cares about every peasant or soldier and if they run out of supplies he'll personally make new shoes for them" reading, but I admit that I was touched by the fact that he really just wanted to protect his faithful little retinue.

The dynamics I've focused on so far, as you could probably tell, really are thoroughly enjoyable. The problem is this: only the "good side" gets these dynamics in the films. By which I mean to say that if Ro3K the novel seems anti-Wei (and fair enough if it chooses to be!), it's got nothing on this. I don't know why they thought it was a good idea to give Cao Cao all these generic villain behavioural patterns, but the result of course is that it makes the conflict almost artificially clear-cut and cheapens the overall effect. Especially egregious was the fact that, several times during the movies, someone goes on to enlighten us with the "fact" that "Cao Cao has no friends" and I'm like

I mean, fine, let's go with the interpretation that he's the worst thing since before sliced bread and a rebel against the Han and a corrupt politician and whatever, but how did they manage to miss the fact that all these lords are as strong as they are because they're supported by an entourage of people who genuinely want to support them? Barring that, how did they miss the numerous passages in the novel alone (if we're leaving out historical anecdotes) where people profess loyalty to him or quarrel over him or die for him, completely willingly? You can have a character who's notorious for being ruthless and manipulative and still not hated by everyone or desperately lonely, just sayin'. That's the thing - he can get away with so much because those closest to him are loyal and reliable without needing to be persuaded. And I think it is a damn shame that the movies ignored all that and gave him a grand total of Ø meaningful, non-coercive on-screen relationships, not to mention reduced his characterization to basically "greedy bastard who consistently messes up and never ever shows any compassion, ever" [CITATION NEEDED]. Not to say he was just a nice kitty, but seriously. The main conflict would've been a lot more interesting (and convincing) if it had looked at the rivals somewhat neutrally, or just without the conscious "lol generic villain Cao Cao" godmodding. You guys, I know you can do complexity! Use some of it on the ~evil side as well!

I keep saying "generic" and, in addition to painting him as unloved, there's another reason: that whole romantic subplot with Xiao Qiao. I've since discovered that they didn't entirely pull it out of thin air, since in the novel he does want to...oh wait, steal off both Zhou Yu's wife and Sun Ce's widow, except his rationale for that is to lock them up in a tower for personal amusement as a pair of trophy girlfriends and a giant "I won" sign. Now that is evil, and I guess replacing it with a romantic subplot mitigates that (or just makes it palatable to contemporary viewers, whichever). The problem is, that whole element came across as nothing but a "generic big-budget movie source of conflict" and I for one did not need to see another one of those, so I was disappointed. I was also disappointed because, while it is a good move to diverge from the source canon and not treat women as a commodity (which the movie wasn't doing anyway), it becomes decidedly less nice when it's also used as a device to erase Cao Cao's other hinted-at relationships. I don't want to fault the films too much for skipping Xiahou Dun, considering he's not depicted as too involved in this battle elsewhere either, but I am going to fault it when it's used as an instrument of this insidious straightwashing. (Set during a time in history when everyone had to have a family, but no one seemed to get labelled with a rigid sexuality for time and eternity. Damn the 19th century!)

TL;DR: I just had to say I wasn't impressed with the fail surrounding Cao Cao's background/motives in this. Double shame because his actor was quite good. And no, I never do take off the queer theory hat. :P Oh, but the very ending worked out well since it was left open (as it should be) and yet again, Cao Cao's poor headdress goes down. How symbolic. (Although it doesn't beat the scenario in the novel, with Cao Cao's desperate escape and Guan Yu specifically letting him go. I believe this also appears in one of the DW installments.)

My overall conclusion is still good because there was plenty to counter whatever bothered me in part, for which I'd gladly recommend the films. Just take them with a gigantic grain of salt when it comes to the portrayal of Wei. You'd have a terrible impression of them from just seeing the movie with such a derailed leader. He does get redeemed a bit while rousing the soldiers to action in the second part but...yeah. Not even using tea as a battle tactic will make me entirely amenable. XD

It's a pain and mostly fruitless trying to find some actual clips from this movie (not trailers), so here's like...a quarter of a totally awesome scene before most of the awesomeness happens. I know, I'm sorry, but at least there's Zhuge Liang inventing rapid-fire crossbows.

kohl_eyed on July 31st, 2011 03:09 pm (UTC)
Whoaaa what a write-up! I'm impressed! And yeah, my love for Takeshi Kaneshiro in this movie knows no bounds! (Also, it is my pet theory that after Zhugeliang visited and played music with Zhou Yun, he slept over. And Xiao Qiao was TOTALLY OK WITH IT. :D;; Those three were so cute together in the first movie, haha.)

Yes, after reading your excerpts about Cao Cao, I can definitely see that these movies reduced him in some not-so-good ways. (It always seems that way, though, at least in the adaptations I've seen: EVIL CAO CAO IS EVIL!!! GET IT? EVIL!!!!) I had no idea that Xiahou Dun even existed, for one! I'm still kind of convinced the movie took a sympathetic line with him, because it really isn't like he rules his people through fear, and they still applaud his poetry! lol. There has to be some love and loyalty there! The Xiao Qiao subplot, at least to me, made Cao Cao seem amazingly vulnerable and human, so I appreciated its addition (though I suppose it also made him a bit DH!Snape-ish). But again, that's likely only because I've seen him so demonized in other adaptations. Hm, now I'm interested to see if there are any movies/tv series from the Wei perspective...
See you later, instigator: Luna Seaoudeteron on July 31st, 2011 03:40 pm (UTC)
Aw, thanks! I was worried it might just come across as wall of tl;dr, but I had a lot to say. XD Yesss, he is made of win. I foresee rewatching his scenes at random or something. (As for your pet theory...where was he supposed to go, anyway? I sure thought the three of them got along beautifully.)

...but the novel-verse Zhou Yu is a BASTARD. I warn you now.

The only adaptation I've had experience with so far that doesn't run wild with his "evilness" is the Dynasty Warriors franchise, or more specifically, DW7. The Wei storyline legitimately makes me baww. (Yeah, EVIL ALL THE TIME and I blame the novel because it's ultimately from Liu Bei's perspective, but that said, the novel still keeps its affiliation subtle-ish.) I think you're right that adding the romance is sympathetic of the movie, in a way, but to me it was just so in-your-face for something that wasn't even really there originally and, as I said, kind of a generic plot device. (oh god what if they took the tip from Snape, I don't even. XD) Anyway, I just read the book-version of this battle and I think what shows his humanity there is that after the harrowing escape (not shown in the movie anymore), he only survives because Guan Yu just can't get over his kindness and lets him and his exhausted company pass. ;_;

Ahaha, Che and I were talking about making a Wei movie to balance things out here. And leave out a random but significant Wu or Shu character AND SEE HOW THEY LIKE IT!!1 XD Nah, that'd be cruel.

And and, LOOK HOW BADASS XIAHOU DUN IS (also did you say loyalty kink):
[...] But he was surely the most trusted general of Cao Cao, as he was said to often ride in the same carriage as his master, a privilege not even extended to Cao's personal bodyguards Dian Wei and Xu Chu. Yu Huan's Weilüe mentioned that when Cao Cao became King of Wei, he gave titles to his generals but gave Xiahou Dun a title from the Han Dynasty, rather than the land of Wei. Xiahou Dun questioned Cao Cao about it, and Cao stated that great generals should belong to great lands, and that the land of Wei was not grand enough for a general of Xiahou's caliber. While touched, Xiahou Dun refused the Han title and requested a Wei title instead, demonstrating his loyalty to his master over his loyalty to the Han emperor.
missmonkeh on July 31st, 2011 08:50 pm (UTC)

The apparent disregard for the gender binary, though - I am so down with that.
See you later, instigator: Tea - floweroudeteron on July 31st, 2011 11:34 pm (UTC)

It's ironic because in the book itself, some of the earliest villains are eunuchs, so it gives precisely the opposite message (not to trust people outside the binary, my ass). But I really liked what the movie did with this character!
Glitterburn: RC: Zhuge Liang fanglitterburn on July 16th, 2012 09:39 am (UTC)
Great review, and I agree with pretty much everything here. The aesthetics of the film were very appealing, much more so than Woo’s usual presentation, but he never went into Zhang YiMou territory – you said you’d not watched a Woo film before Red Cliff so if you fancy watching one for point of comparison, I’d recommend Hard Boiled, which was Woo’s last HK film before he went to Hollywood. It has Chow Yun Fat being all badass with Tony Leung CW and is probably the most representative, thematically, of his works. You’ll see the Woo trademarks that made it into Red Cliff, too *g* He’s quite a ‘muscular’ director, I think, but not aggressive, which meshes with your comments on the battle scenes. They’re long but they’re necessary – the one saving grace of the awful Western cut was that they kept most of the battle scenes intact, although of course this unbalanced the film even more.

I have to admit I was really unsure when they cast Takeshi Kaneshiro as Zhuge Liang, because as much as I think Takeshi is a fine man to look at (verrrrry fine), I didn’t rate some of his more recent performances and I had my doubts as to how well he could portray someone of Zhuge Liang’s stature and subtlety. But I was completely blown away by how good he was, and how he ruled the films (especially Part 1). I liked the ambiguity of his relationship with Zhou Yu – they’re respectful and close but there’s always a tension between them, which obviously works better in the context of the ROTK but also works for an audience without prior knowledge. I was so ready to ship these two but then THAT scene with Sun Quan happened and I was all over it, LOL.

I was a bit ambivalent about Sun Shangxiang. I liked that they had a strong female character (I loathed Xiao Qiao) but – and this is more obvious in the Western cut – she smacked a little too much of Token Tomboy rather than standing on her own two feet. It’s difficult to do a lot with an ensemble cast and epic events but still, I wasn’t so fond of her. I did like the idea of her spying on the enemy camp but it fell a bit short for me, and the way those scenes and the aftermath were butchered in the Western cut to make the obligatory ‘war is bad’ comment was so heavy-handed.

As for Cao Cao, I wish they’d given him more complexity. I wonder how much Woo was looking at the two films and seeing the shape of the Western cut in them, because while the two films are more a narrative of events and less of a story with a definable beginning, middle and end, the Western cut leans towards the worst kind of tropes, with Zhou Yu the hero protecting his wife from the evil lecher Cao Cao, and Xiao Qiao presented as some kind of Helen of Troy, with everyone else reduced down to token friends or random baddies. I rambled about it here if you’re interested.

Anyhoo, thanks for linking me to this – gave me lots of think about!
See you later, instigator: Zhuge Liang - official artoudeteron on July 17th, 2012 10:21 pm (UTC)
Wow, I'm glad you found this review worthy! :D I actually wanted to watch Hard Boiled at some point before and then didn't get to it and forgot, so thanks for the recommendation (totally deserves a watch for the actors alone, I say). You make a good point about the aesthetic, and I have to admit I would've been even happier with the "Zhang YiMou territory" because those movies are just gorgeous. But maybe Red Cliff got just the right amount of visual prettiness for a story that, after all, still gets heavy doses of war - speaking of which, are you serious, how can that possibly work if they cut it all down to one film but keep the amount of battle footage the same? There was a lot of battling for the length of the original version already, so unbalanced sounds about right for the Western cut.

Admittedly, I just went into Red Cliff without making a point to look up the actors first (I was going to watch it in any case for the whole "another adaptation of the Three Kingdoms" factor) - which made for a fun exercise in "oooh that's HIM" when I was already watching it. XD And, yeah, I shared the sentiment of being blown away by how awesome Takeshi was here. Especially considering that Zhuge Liang is such an iconic character and in a modern source material he'd have a ton of detractors for being "too perfect" - so it takes someone very epic indeed to pull him off from the acting perspective. I really agree that he "ruled" the films, and yet at the same time it never felt over the top. (You capture that presence very well in your fics featuring him.) About Zhou Yu, I enjoyed that they made their rivalry seem a bit...not sure if "friendlier" is the word but it seemed more subtle than in the novel, even. I loved that scene with the counting of the arrows. AND YET they're still a secondary ship for me in the context of the movies, because Sun Quan came up to troll all expectations and steal the ship and Zhuge Liang.

LOL, yes, I preferred Sun Shangxiang to Xiao Qiao myself. Sorry to hear the Western version simplified her whole character and story, though :/ I just found it so refreshing that the spying went by entirely without "oooh you're ~really a woman, this is so ~scandalous"; I am 100% sure an actual Hollywood movie would go there. It was great how little gender mattered there in the end.

with Zhou Yu the hero protecting his wife from the evil lecher Cao Cao, and Xiao Qiao presented as some kind of Helen of Troy, with everyone else reduced down to token friends or random baddies.
Seriously, THANK YOU. I'll be sure to read your post.

And you are welcome for the link! Thanks for sharing your thoughts as well :D
Glitterburnglitterburn on July 18th, 2012 05:05 am (UTC)
btw did you see the mainland Chinese TV series that came out around the same time as Red Cliff? I have to admit I got bogged down in it (lots of battles again, but much less realistic than Red Cliff) and because my Mandarin is very shoddy, I was watching it with a copy of the book at hand just to refresh my memory!
See you later, instigator: Zhuge Liang - gazeoudeteron on July 18th, 2012 06:53 pm (UTC)
I've discovered this one, which seems to be older and not the one you mean - I've only checked out whatever I could find subtitled of this (the only thing I can understand otherwise are the names and titles). But I know a new series also exists, and apparently Zhuge Liang has his hair perpetually loose in that one? Clearly a noteworthy point. XD
Glitterburnglitterburn on July 20th, 2012 05:18 am (UTC)
Ooh hadn't seen that one! This is the one I have - I admit I bought it for Lu Yi, who plays Zhuge Liang - and yes, his hair is loose for a good percentage of what I've seen *g* (also he has a really cool house in the mountains on top of a lake, though I wonder how practical this is in winter with damp etc but never mind), and for Nie Yuan, who plays Zhao Yun. The 'saving the baby' scene lasts for 20 minutes and is completely over the top, but Zhao Yun and Liu Bei are very slashy together!
See you later, instigator: Lu Bu & Xiao Meng - face the musicoudeteron on July 21st, 2012 11:50 pm (UTC)
Ooh yes, this series, I've only seen its take on the whole wind scene! (Because...I've looked up ALL the takes on the wind scene I could find. In the other series, he's sort of performing a dance and it's so great. Also with loose hair there, incidentally. I was like omg.) Well, I am all kinds of amused at Zhuge Liang living in what basically amounts to a house with a swimming pool. He deserves all the luxury!

...admittedly, I'd be all over a 20-minute Zhao Yun babysitting scene, because that whole thing is so over-the-top epic/ridiculous in the novel as well. And then the anticlimactic resolution (or maybe it's climactic in a different way, LOL). I've seen someone once describing a scene with "and Liu Bei formed his #945689th man crush" and it seems so accurate when you look at the various adaptations and which of these shipping possibilities they choose to highlight. So many to pick from!