'Red Cliff II'

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"Red Cliff I," the first part of the screen adaptation of China's famous "Three Kingdoms" warring history, was a hefty buildup that left audiences dangling at the precipice of a legendary naval battle. The multinational production resources used for this cinematic re-creation are unprecedented in Asia, but it is director John Woo's level-headed ordering of narrative sequence, his skill in devising kinetic live action to offset technical ostentation and his vision of how to turn epic into entertainment that propel "Red Cliff II" to a thundering climax.

Part I reaped a huge $120.7 million from combined boxoffices of 10 Asian territories, with Japan at more than $52 million to date. Part II easily can soar on the crest of this success to record highs in Asian theaters.

"Red Cliff II" opens with a brisk recap of Part I, in which Prime Minister Cao Cao's (Zhang Fengyi) first campaign to annex the fiefdom of East Wu was thwarted by an allied defensive led by Wu viceroy Zhou Yu (Tony Leung) and Zhuge Liang (Takeshi Kaneshiro), the military strategist who serves Cao's opponent Liu Bei. With Cao's forces poised to sail down the Yangtze for a second offensive, Zhuge uses his knowledge of weather changes to help Zhou decimate Cao's 2,000-strong fleet.

Even at 141 minutes, the film never feels ponderous or self-important. From the moment it opens with a Chinese soccer game that whips up a whirlwind sense of movement, Woo keeps the ball rolling with an intriguing lead-up that includes a reconnaissance mission by Wu princess Shangxiang, double agents and double-crosses in both camps and bluffs and counterbluffs among Zhuge, Zhou and Cao. Tight editing keeps the frequent scene changes under control and the intricate stratagems comprehensible.

A timely lull comes when Zhou's wife Xiaoqiao (Lin Chiling) literally brews up a storm in a teacup in her seduction of Cao. Although the two only sip tea, they generate more erotic vibes than the clumsily shot sex scene between Zhou and Xiaoqiao in Part I.

The climactic battle lives up to popular expectations of epic filmmaking, with more than 30 minutes of sophisticated military maneuvers, special effects and human drama in one continuous movement. The wooden galleys are constructed magnificently. Visceral explosions and close-ups of human carnage, combined with a few well-placed panoramic CGI shots of the fire's domino effect on the connected fleet, come close to "Titanic" in achieving a sense of catastrophic grandeur. Visual effects by the Orphanage are convincing in small doses, their painterly texture adding a dreamy air to the hard-core stunts and pyrotechnics.

The maritime spectacle segues smoothly onto land as Wu forces storm Cao's fort. Corey Yuen's action choreography maintains a strong martial arts element that gives the main protagonists individual play among stampedes of extras.

Part II gains dramatic weight as Cao steps up as a dominant force and the film's most subtly drawn character. Zhang ("Farewell My Concubine") is the film's best casting choice. His Cao radiates intelligence and is ever so urbane but remains unfathomable behind his composure. He epitomizes the charismatic Machiavellian prince when he boosts morale of his homesick troops with eloquent rhetoric yet ruthlessly decides he'll let his last soldier die "to put on a show of military might."

Notwithstanding perfunctory laments about the sacrifice of rank and file, the whole saga is a glorification of medieval chivalry and individual heroism. However, Woo distinguishes his magnum opus from Hollywood blockbusters by putting his auteur's stamp on the final standoff between Cao and Zhou, with a pose that references all the classic face-offs in his "hero" films. (partialdiff)
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