Red Cliff Part II (2009) – Feature
The story of RED CLIFF takes place in 208 AD in China during the Han Dynasty. Despite the presence of an emperor, Han Xiandi, China was then divided into many warring states.
The ambitious Prime Minister Cao Cao, by using the Emperor as his puppet, waged war on a kingdom in the west, Xu, ruled by the emperor’s uncle, Liu Bei. Cao Cao’s ultimate goal was to wipe out all the kingdoms and install himself as Emperor to a unified China.
Liu Bei sent his military advisor Zhuge Liang as an envoy to the Wu Kingdom in the south, trying to persuade its ruler Sun Quan into joining forces. There he met Wu’s Viceroy Zhou Yu, and the two became friends amidst this uneasy alliance.
Enraged to learn that the two kingdoms have become allies, Cao Cao sent an army of eight hundred thousand soldiers and two thousand ships down south, hoping to kill two birds with one stone. Cao Cao’s army set up camp at Crow Forest, across the Yangtze River from RED CLIFF, where the allies were stationed.
With the food supply running short, and the army vastly outnumbered by Cao Cao’s, the allies seemed doomed. Zhou Yu and Zhuge Liang had to rely on their combined wisdom to turn the tide of battle. Numerous battles of wits and forces, on land and on water, eventually culminated into the most famous battle in Chinese history, where two thousand ships were burned, and the course of China’s history was changed forever. That was the Battle of RED CLIFF.
This famous battle was immortalized in the novel Romance of the Three Kingdoms. Although written some seven hundred years ago, the novel is still widely read all over Asia, and has spawned more than a dozen videogames and numerous comic books.
Director John Woo was attracted to this story for more than 20 years, but back then, neither the technology nor the market could support a film of this scale or magnitude. The opportunity came in the summer of 2004, when Woo’s producer Terence Chang went to Beijing for the first time, and started putting the financing and production plan together.
The story opens near the end of the Han Dynasty in 208 A.D. The shrewd PRIME MINISTER CAO CAO (and de facto leader of the Han Empire) convinces the fickle EMPEROR HAN to declare war on the Kingdoms of Xu in the West and East Wu in the South. Cao Cao claims that his intention is to once and for all unify all of China for the good of the Han Empire, but in actuality, his motivations are more self-serving. After convincing Emperor Han, Cao Cao leads his army of nearly one million soldiers off to war. Their first destination is the newly established Xu Kingdom, ruled by the benevolent leader LIU BEI.
Upon arriving at the Xu Kingdom, Cao Cao’s forces easily crush Liu Bei’s vastly outnumbered army, sending Liu Bei and his people on a desperate flight from Xin Ye city. The Xu citizens flee under the protection of Liu Bei’s troops and his two top generals (and sworn brothers), GUAN YU and ZHANG FEI, who stay behind, risking their lives to save the fleeing peasants.
Meanwhile, a lone Liu general, ZHAO YUN, gallops through a battalion of Cao troops, killing many as he goes, all the while carrying Liu Bei’s infant son in his breast armor.
After a heroic stand against Cao Cao, Guan Yu, Zhang Fei and their troops make their escape, along with the rest of Liu Bei’s citizens. With the Yangtze River now acting as the only natural defense against the mighty Cao army, the Liu generals understand that it is only a matter of time before Cao Cao’s forces catch up with them and slaughter everyone. They have no other choice but to send a representative, ZHU-GE LIANG, to the Kingdom of East Wu to ask to form an alliance.
Zhu-Ge Liang arrives at the wealthy Kingdom of East Wu where his request is at first met with a great deal of resistance from the twenty-six year old leader, SUN QUAN, and his council. One of Sun Quan’s advisors, LU SU, informs Zhu-Ge that if he wants to sway Sun Quan, he must first convince the Viceroy, ZHOU YU, to go to war. Zhu-Ge then ventures to the Wu training camp in RED CLIFF, where Zhou Yu is instructing his elite “Dare-to-Die” assault troops, with the help of General GAN XING. That night Zhou Yu and Zhu-Ge demonstrate their ability to play classical Chinese instruments together and discuss the prospects of war. Zhu-Ge also meets Zhou Yu’s wife – known for being the most beautiful woman in all of China, XIAO QIAO – whose father was actually very close with Cao Cao many years ago.
After their night of bonding, Zhou Yu and Zhu-Ge Liang return to Sun Quan and convince him that it is in his kingdom’s best interest to form an alliance with Liu Bei. Cao Cao, by this time, has asked for Sun Quan’s formal surrender, a request which Sun Quan boldly declines.
Cao Cao, eager to fight, sends one of his generals, XIA HOU YUAN, with a battalion of men, to launch an attack against the allies on horseback. Zhou Yu and Zhu-Ge Liang, though have already predicted his attack and are ready. Xia Hou is first attacked by Sun Quan’s tomboyish sister, SUN SHANGXIANG, and, in a rage, follows her and her archers right into a trap. The allies use a complicated system of battle formations and inflict incredible damage on Xia Hou’s men. By battle’s end, Xia Hou, having had his life spared by Zhou Yu, flees alone in shame after his troops all surrender to Zhou Yu, who has been injured during an act of true heroism, in which he saved the life of Zhao Yun.
The East Wu forces, still high from their decisive victory, set up camp on the south bank of the Yangtze River by the precipitous area known as “RED CLIFF.” Directly across the river on the north bank, Cao Cao erects an imposing fortress in the center of his camp at Crow Forest, as well as a naval stockade comprised of two thousand ships. While his soldiers prepare for the upcoming battles, Cao Cao insists that his men play “cuju,” an ancient form of soccer.
Sun Quan’s sister, Sun Shangxiang, a brave warrior in her own right, flees across the river, disguises herself as a male Cao soldier, and acts as a spy. She bonds with a young man named SUN SHUCAI who enlists her to play on his cuju team.
Cao Cao, however, ends up in a tough position when many of his troops – who are unaccustomed to the southern environment – begin falling ill to a rampant plague. Seeing how this is affecting his troops, he sends the infected bodies of his dead soldiers across the river to infect the allied forces. Though Zhu-Ge Liang reacts quickly, many still fall victim to the plague and the allied forces are heavily demoralized. Liu Bei is seen riding off with Guan Yu, Zhang Fei, and Zhao Yun, having seemingly deserted the alliance.
In desperate need of supplies, Zhu-Ge Liang hatches an intricate plan to weaken the Cao army. They stage a fake night assault on Cao’s naval stockade, which results in Cao’s admirals ordering their troops to fire nearly one hundred thousand arrows at vacant enemy ships. By morning, it appears as though Cao’s two top admirals have intentionally given the arrows to the enemy as a gift. The case against the admirals is strengthened when a fake note (made by Zhou Yu) surfaces, stating the details of the plan to give the “gift” of one hundred thousand arrows. Cao Cao orders that the admirals be summarily executed. Upon seeing the admirals being executed, many of the navy soldiers fear for their own lives and flee, which results in most them being slain as defectors. In spite of all this, however, Cao Cao still plans to launch an attack within a few days’ time, and he gives an inspiring speech that goes a long way toward restoring the morale of his army.
Back at RED CLIFF, the East Wu generals devise a plan to attack Cao’s naval stockade with fire. This strategy is strong in theory since Cao’s ships are all chained together, however, with the wind currently blowing from the north, the fire would only blow back onto the East Wu ships. Sun Shangxiang returns from the Cao camp with a complete map of the camp, which the allies use to plan their attack.
Despite Zhou Yu’s protests, Xiao Qiao goes over to Cao Cao to try to convince him to halt his invasion – or at least stall him awhile. Cao Cao, who has always been fond of Xiao Qiao since she was a child, is instantly smitten by Xiao Qiao’s beauty. (It had even been rumored that Cao Cao’s motivation for going to war was really an effort to win Xiao Qiao’s heart.)
Zhu-Ge Liang returns to Zhou Yu and informs him that, based off of the alignment of the stars that the Winter Solstice begins tomorrow, and the direction of the wind will change, thus permitting them to move forward with the fire tactics. The East Wu army prepares for the impending attack; quietly taking up positions around Cao Cao’s camp while their ships wait near RED CLIFF for the wind to change directions. Xiao Qiao talks with Cao Cao at length to distract him.
Finally, the wind changes directions and the East Wu army attacks. Several East Wu ships are ignited and sent crashing into Cao Cao’s naval stockade. Soon the entire Cao fleet is set ablaze. Meanwhile, the Wu army invades Cao’s camp on land.
The surprise attack takes Cao Cao and his army completely off guard. But Cao Cao’s powerful cavalry turns the tables and pushes the invading army back to the river, poised to decimate them. Then, to everyone’s surprise, Liu Bei and his army show up and help put Cao Cao’s troops back on the defensive. Now the united army begins its attack on Cao Cao’s fortress. Zhou Yu, with the help of Zhao Yun and Sun Quan, eventually makes his way into the fortress and rescues Xiao Qiao as it goes up flames. Cao Cao barely escapes with his life. The massive battle ends in a resounding victory for East Wu and Liu Bei’s Kingdom of Xu.
Rather than hunting Cao Cao down, Zhu-Ge Liang advises that his forces let Cao Cao return to his emperor in defeat. Zhu-Ge Liang bids farewell to his friend Zhou Yu and Xiao Qiao. Cao Cao heads toward his home where his son anxiously awaits his return.
Getting the script right for this movie was a monumental task. The difficulties were threefold.
First, the story actually took place in 208 AD, but it did not become popular until the novel Romance of the Three Kingdoms, written by Luo Guanzhong, was published, in the thirteenth century. In the novel, many facts were distorted for dramatic effect.
For instance, the character of Zhuge Liang, the military advisor of the Zu Kingdom, was lionized to mythical proportions. He was described as a mature gentleman with magical powers, which he used to alter the weather and “borrow the eastern wind”, enabling the Allies to win the Battle of RED CLIFF. But in reality, he was only 27 years old when the battle was fought. He was a farmer and scholar who had just been recruited by his Lord, Liu Bei, as a strategist. He merely used his knowledge of the nature and astrology to predict changes in the weather.
The real hero of this battle, Viceroy Zhou Yu of the Wu Kingdom, was described in the novel as a narrow-minded person who tried to kill Zhuge Liang and was so jealous of Zhuge’s talents that he eventually died.
Director John Woo wanted to stick close to history, and he based most of the script on the historical book Chronicles of the Three Kingdoms, as well as other historical studies; but at the same time, he also extracted certain entertaining elements from the novel, so as not to alienate fans of the novel. For instance, the brilliant scene of Zhuge Liang’s “borrowing of the enemy’s arrows with the straw boats” was taken from the novel. It was a delicate balance indeed.
Second, this film is intended not just for the Asian audience, but for an international one. The novel of Romance of the Three Kingdoms is widely read, even nowadays, not only in Chinese speaking territories such as China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Singapore, but also in other Asian countries such as Japan and Korea. It has spawned numerous comic books and mangas in these territories, and has also prompted the Japanese game publisher Koei to publish more than a dozen very successful (both strategy and action) videogames with the title ROMANCE OF THE THREE KINGDOMS.
When one is making a movie about the Three Kingdoms, one has to include generals like Zhao Yun, Zhang Fei and especially Guan Yu, who is now worshipped as a god in many Asian countries. But for the western audience, there seem to be too many characters with names that sound very similar. One US studio executive once suggested combining several generals on the Allies’ side into one person. That would be like combining Roosevelt, Churchill and de Galle into one person when making a movie about WWII.
Owing to the large number of characters, as well as the numerous famous incidents that led to the Battle of RED CLIFF, the script came in very long. It is hard to imagine a western audience sitting through a four hour subtitled Chinese movie.
The solution was to split the movie into two parts for the Asian market and release it as one trimmed down “John Woo action film” for the international audience.
Third, this story is so well known in Asia that every person who is familiar with the story has his or her own take on it. The same goes with writers, and perhaps more with writers than anyone else. From July 2004 to early 2007, John Woo worked with several top Chinese writers, but none of them could produce a script to Woo’s satisfaction. Eventually Woo wrote it himself, first with Khan Chan to map out a structure, then with Kuo Cheng to flesh out the characters and the individual scenes.
Kuo Cheng stayed with the film during its entire shoot. He was on hand to deal with minor dialogue changes during the production.