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Red Cliff: Upping the Yangtze

Film Review: Red Cliff (3 stars) If you're a film director, you've got to love a country with a long and storied history. Canadians can dramatize Passchendaele, the U.S. can make a mini-series out of the life of John Adams, but only the Chinese can reach back to the Battle of Red Cliffs, which was fought 1,800 years ago last winter. Take that, Heritage Minutes! The story, for all its naval battles, early bacteriological warfare and sky- darkening volleys of arrows, is quite simple. In AD 208, southern warlords Liu Bei and Sun Quan (Yong You and Chen Chang, respectively) joined forces to defeat the numerically superior army of the merciless Cao Cao (Fengyi Zhang). We're given clear signs whom to root for in the early going. Liu Bei's first priority in one engagement is to protect fleeing civilian refugees from slaughter, while southern viceroy Zhou Yu (Tony Leung) is seen taking time out from military drills to fix a young boy's flute. The southerners also employ a trusted meteorologist, a women's auxiliary force and a lot of hearty backslapping and friendly smiles. This happy few, this band of brothers clearly deserves our 21st-century approbation. They're also outnumbered about 27 to 1. Red Cliff was written and directed by John Woo, who returns to his native China after a string of expensive American fare including Mission: Impossible II, Windtalkers and Paycheck. The film's credits also list a trio of co-writers, although no mention is made of Sun Tzu, the 6th-century BC military strategist whose Art of War surely informs the film. (Witness the scene in which Cao Cao draws up his attack plans while the southern generals, miles away, seem to read his mind by putting themselves in his place.) There are some unforgettable images in the film, such as the long, single take of a dove that flies from the southern encampment, across the Yangtze river, over Cao Cao's anchored flotilla and right into the heart of his headquarters. The return journey, as it were, is made by a female spy who enters the allies command centre and performs an interesting striptease — her long wrap, once removed from her body, reveals a detailed map of the enemy camp. There is presumably much more to be seen. The two-and-a-half-hour version opening in Canada today is merely a pared-down edition of the original two-part, four-hour epic. (This is Woo's Che, as it were.) It's hard to know if the romantic subplot feels as hastily added in the director's cut, or if the early scenes have the same choppy, hurry-up feeling, but once the alliances are formed and the stakes made known, the war movie that unfolds does so with grace and efficiency. I half expected to hear one general inhale and remark: "I love the smell of brimstone in the morning."