Red Cliff or Chi Bi (2008)
Red Cliff or Chi Bi is the first half of an epic film based on the time of the Three Kingdoms in China around 250 AD. Written and directed by John Woo, it looks at the uses and abuses of military force. Taking an overview, I suppose the question is why anyone wants to fight a war. I write this against the backdrop of the British inquiry being led by John Chilcot. The five-member team hopes to reach a better understanding of why Britain suddenly found itself fighting in Iraq. It’s an unlikely mission, worthy of a Major Reisman or Lt. Aldo Raine but, given the presence of the best screen writers, we can expect history to be manipulated to get the results the politicians think we can accept without provoking rioting on the streets.
Looking back at the Three Kingdoms in China, we have similar issues to resolve. The Han Emperor is manipulated into declaring war on the “rebels” in the South. The man responsible for this invasion is the Prime Minister Cao Cao, played by Fengyi Zhang. It’s an unkind judgement but perhaps he was motivated by the desire to recover his long-lost first love, a beautiful lady now living in the Kingdom of Wu. Unfortunately, Cao Cao can’t just waltz into Wu with an army. There are rules about who you can fight and why. Just as today, he needs a causus belli against Sun Quann, played by Chen Chang, the man who leads Wu.
Think comparatively. The Han Empire is the hegemonic power like America and, when it suits its interests, it uses military muscle to displace the rulers of the surrounding kingdoms. So, like Tony Blair, Cao Cao produces a dodgy dossier asserting that another southern king, Liu Bei, is a commie plotting against the Emperor. The equivalent of Weapons of Mass Destruction is Liu Bei’s intention to protect and empower the peasants — this destabilises the traditional hierarchy by offering class mobility to the lowly born. When Cao Cao invades, Liu Bei fights a rear-guard defence of the peasants as they stream from their burning villages. Significantly, the only place for them to escape is Wu. In hot pursuit of the commie rebels, this gives Cao Cao his pretext for attacking Wu. He has numerical superiority on the ground and, having made a tactical alliance with some renegade southern admirals, he has powerful naval forces as well. Thus well prepared, he sets off to shock and awe both Liu Bei and Sun Quan.
Which is the better fighting force? Is it the one with the numerical superiority, or is it the one with the warriors who have the best individual skills and the best strategic sense of how to fight wars? In this conflict, Cao Cao is forced to rely on the services of potentially unreliable allies. He deals with this by using them as the front-line troops. If anyone is lost, it will be the least reliable. His attrition rate may be higher, but he is not risking any of his loyal troops. Initially, Liu Bei relies on Zhuge Liang played by Takeshi Kaneshiro as his strategist. Sun Quan relies on Zhou Yu played by Tony Leung Chiu Wai. When the two come together, they are able to blend their differences in style to produce a use for both organised manoeuvres and individual flair. The result is the first defeat ever inflicted on Cao Cao’s cavalry and land forces.
Ignoring the set piece battles, which are impressively bloodthirsty, the beauty of the film lies in its willingness to hear the stillness between heartbeats. The lives of everyone are given substance. Whether it’s the anaemic Han Emperor or the peasants as they run from the invading armies, everyone is allowed time on the screen. This is particularly important in the relationship that must be made between Zhuge Liang and Zhou Yu. Today, their masters must join forces and co-operate. Tomorrow, the co-operation may fail and it may be necessary for the two strategists to organise the fight against each other. As a metaphor, think of a mare struggling with a footling breech presentation. One leg has emerged, but unless the baby can be turned, it can never be born. So Zhou Yu pushes the leg back in and rotates the baby so that both legs may emerge together. In this way, both strategists may come together in a new working relationship. But, just as the pony becomes a horse with different riders depending on whether it’s used for war or peace, so the way the mens’ future relationship develops may go through forced changes.
As it is, both will stop to hear a boy play the flute, changing the pitch of the instrument with a knife to ensure it plays in tune, and both will consciously make the effort to stay calm when everything about their military situation would call for panic. This essential stillness is what makes them so great, able to analyse the emerging situation and immediately devise the best response. Remember, this is military conflict in slow motion. When you have to move armies numbered in the hundred thousands, find places for them to camp, arrange for provisions to arrive, and so on, the logistics without mechanised transport are daunting. So Cao Cao has the more difficult position. His troops are forced to travel long distances and stretch the supply lines. The southern forces are well rested and have provisions on hand. So the first film ends with the two armies facing each other on opposite sides of the Yangtze River with the “good guys” having their backs to the Red Cliff.
As is perhaps inevitable in a film set in ancient China, there’s little scope for women to star yet John Woo has given us Sun Shangxiang played with admirable enthusiasm by Wei Zhao. Indeed, her role is responsible for what little humour there is in the film. Overall, this is a wonderful preparation for the major battle for Red Cliff. Great periods of calm reflection and discussion are the bridge between intense battle scenes building up to the second half of the film where, as history requires, one side must emerge the victor.
For the review of the second half, see Red Cliff II.
For another film set before the battle of Red Cliff, see The Lost Bladesman.