I first came across this poem as a mere 16-year-old trying desperately to mug for the Chinese Literature exam. I don’t really know why but when i read aloud the words of 念奴娇, images of past grandeur and ancient heroes would emerge, and i would magically zip through the ages from an unbearably warm and stuffy classroom to majestic cliffs and magnificent peaks- a bygone era of great warriors and beautiful women. The poem invoked a deep sense of regret and nostalgia, so much so that ten years on, i could still retrieve every single word from my memory vault.
So when i heard that John Woo was about to film 赤壁, i told myself that it is high time for me to see my favourite Chinese poem come to life on the big screen. The story is set in Ancient China during the period of the Warring States. Cao Cao (Zhang Feng Yi), the evil Prime Minister, launched a war against the Southern states in the hope that he could unify China and become Emperor. To protect their territories (and people), the warlords of the Southern states, Sun Quan (Chang Chen) and Liu Bei (Yong You), aided by Viceroy Zhou Yu (Tony Leung), advisor ZhuGe Liang (Takeshi Kaneshiro) and four veteran fighters, retaliated with a fierce battle of military might and wits against the despotic Cao Cao. The film would be released to Asian audiences in two parts and the first installment definitely did not disappoint.
Plot-wise, the film wasn’t draggy. It was very exciting at many junctures and I was pleasantly surprised by how the film steered clear of meaningless sappy melodrama. In fact, there was plenty of light-hearted humour and sarcasm in the film. The props, costumes and set were splendid, as were the numerous adrenaline-pumping battle scenes. John Woo and his crew succeeded in making me intrigued by the impressive array of awe-inducing war formations and strategies. The acting was rock-solid and again, i have to comment on the sheer hotness and prettiness of Tony Leung and Takeshi Kaneshiro respectively. Zhao Wei and the four warriors were also excellent. Lin Chi Ling, in her debut, was adequate as Xiao Qiao, Zhou Yu’s beautiful wife. I don’t understand how her acting could possibly gather so much flak considering that her role really wasn’t demanding- she just had to look flawless and innocent and I think Lin Zhi Ling is probably the only modern actress who can convince as Xiao Qiao. She did a good job, well, looking very good, acting very elegant, and sounding like tinkling glass.
赤壁, on the whole, succeeded as a big budget, glorious depiction of schemes, power struggles and wars in Ancient China. The first part wasn’t powerful in terms of portraying human emotions but I am hoping that the second part would pay attention to that aspect after the main characters and motivations have been laid out clearly.