| One of Asia’s most influential filmmakers, John Woo (“Face/Off” and “Broken Arrow”), returns to his homeland with the most expensive Chinese-language picture ever produced. This epic masterpiece with a price tag of $80 million is set in 208 A.D. during the end of China’s Han Dynasty.
The power-hungry self-appointed Prime Minister Cao Cao convinces the impressionable young Emperor recently brought back from exile that two Southern warlords are traitors to the kingdom and must be destroyed. This begins a military invasion by land and sea of the unstoppable imperial troops against the allied forces of the aging Liu Bei and the inexperienced Sun Quan.
The alliance is put together by Bei’s master strategist Kongming (Takeshi Kaneshiro from “House of Flying Daggers”) and Sun’s trusted adviser Zhou Yu (Tony Leung from “Lust/Caution,” “Infernal Affairs” and “Hero”).
The title refers to the place where the most famous battle in Chinese history took place. The victory of the underdog forces against nearly impossible odds plays out like David versus Goliath.
Woo demonstrates a storytelling style of swiftness and grandeur that has been compared to the samurai classics of Akira Kurosawa.
The Asian version was originally released in two parts totaling nearly five hours. This condensed account has been expertly edited down to 2½ hours. It focuses on the battle scenes, military formations and martial arts action.
All kinds of ancient weaponry are on display including shields, spears and arrows. The size, scope and scenic beauty are breathtaking.
An English-speaking narrator sets things up and the main characters are identified. The subtitles are in very small print, but you can almost skip reading them because the action is self-explanatory. The story is easy to follow with a traditional three-act structure.
This movie gets top marks in the categories of cinematography, costume design, art direction, production design, sound mixing, sound editing, visual effects and film editing.
Woo sometimes changes things up going from color to black and white. Woo’s imagination and creative talents are exemplified when a white dove flies all the way from one camp to the other giving us an aerial view of the enormity of this historical war.
The brilliant musical score composed by Taro Iwashiro adds to the excitement. The movie has romance and comedic moments to ease the tension.
Besides the camaraderie between the characters played by Leung and Kaneshiro, Woo wisely makes room for two key female roles. Newcomer Chiling Lin (the most well-known fashion model from Taiwan) plays Leung’s beautiful and pregnant wife whose tea-making ability turns the tide along with an assist from Mother Nature. She advocates peace and stands out in the controversy like Helen of Troy. She will remind you of a porcelain China doll with her exquisite appearance. Wei Zhao plays a princess who wants to join the fight and break through the sexism of a male-dominated society. She goes undercover to spy on the enemy. She cleverly comes up with a plan to provide her side with detailed drawings of the enemy positions.
This is one of the best foreign language films of 2009. If you are a fan of movies like “300,” “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” “Hero” and “House of Flying Daggers,” then this dramatic war spectacle must be seen on a big screen. The dialogue is in Mandarin with English subtitles.
Now playing exclusively for a limited engagement at the Tivoli in Westport.
Keith Cohen "The Movie Guy"