It's easy to tell which side is virtuous and which side is debased in Red Cliff, John Woo's spectacular war film set in third-century China. The virtuous leaders love music and tea, and they commune with nature. The debased ones desecrate their dead.
Based on real events, Red Cliff was released as a two-parter in China, where it was massively popular. What we are seeing is a condensed version, with an English-language prologue and flashy titles that identify the key characters. But you don't have to bone up on your Chinese history to enjoy this film, just as you don't need to know many particulars of the American Civil War to understand why Scarlett will never be hungry again.
The bulk of Red Cliff concerns a series of battles between the craven imperial prime minister Cao Cao (Fengyi Zhang) and the thoughtful southern warlords he is bent on subduing. The battle sequences are stunning, including the 40-minute finale in which the warlords and their outnumbered troops take on an armada that, seen from overhead, seems to stretch into infinity.
As you would expect from Woo, there is much fighting of the martial-arts, hand-to-hand variety. These scenes are frenetic, delirious. But there also are grandly conceived sights. Marching regiments execute precision maneuvers. A flotilla of flaming ships attack in the night. Spears and arrows fly so thick that they darken the sky.
There are quieter moments, too. One comes when, as a mass of soldiers drill, the sound of a young boy's flute pierces the air. The drilling stops. The valorous southern viceroy Zhou Yu (Tony Leung) approaches the boy and sternly takes the instrument. Is the viceroy furious? No. The tone is not quite right, so he expertly uses a blade to make some fine adjustments, then hands the flute back. With twinkling eyes, the boy resumes playing. Much better.