John Woo’s expensive return to Asian filmmaking—in U.S. dollars the production cost 80 million—is dense with third-century Chinese history, overpopulated with marching extras and extras on horseback, and, for all that, sparse and schematic. Grunt, slash, spray, grunt, slash, spray . . . . Chi bi alternates between mostly dull, static royal and military talkfests and thunderous, bloody battle scenes. Having persuaded Emperor Han that the unification of China could be achieved by warring against a couple of kingdoms, warlord Cao Cao’s invasion of one of these sets off the action, which turns out to be a real contest as both target kingdoms form an alliance. The culmination of the action is the Battle of Red Cliff. Various Asian audiences have seen the release of the first part and can look forward to the remainder in 2009. A single condensed version, as far as I know, has yet to be released in the U.S.
In what I saw, there simply wasn’t enough poetry or humanity, or the poetry of humanity. In one moment that I loved, a military official of the invaded Land of Wu approaches a peasant child at Red Cliff with a drawn sword. The little boy is playing a flute whose sound is unclear. With the tip of his sword Zhou Yu either makes new holes in the instrument or cleans out particles from the old ones. Now the sound is pure, and the smile of contentment on the child’s face is irresistible. I wish there had been more respites such as this from the noisy, nasty battles.
There is a lyrical shot of Woo’s trademark dove in extended flight. A blue jay draws attention early on, and sounds of birds throughout compose a symphony of aural evanescence.
But there’s little else of interest.
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