Red Cliff (original title 赤壁) is a film directed by John Woo and inspired by a famous battle in Romance of the Three Kingdoms, based on the Three Kingdoms period of ancient China. The first part was released in 2008 and its second part in 2009; in some countries, only a condensed version was released. It stars Tony Leung, Takeshi Kaneshiro, Zhang Fengyi, Chang Chen, Hu Jun, Lin Chiling and Zhao Wei.In 208 CE, the centuries-old Han Dynasty is crumbling. To the South, warlords Sun Quan and Liu Bei have set up the independent kingdoms of Wu and Shu, respectively, while the scheming Prime Minister Cao Cao obtains from the young, naive Emperor leadership of a huge army to be sent to crush Sun and Liu's "rebellions". Cao Cao's Wei forces swiftly advance into the Kingdom of Shu and face Liu Bei's army at the Battle of Changban, where Liu's sworn brothers Zhang Fei and Guan Yu (who will later be deified as the Chinese God of War) successfully hold back the attackers, giving civilians enough time to evacuate. However, despite Zhao Yun's bravery, Liu's wife is killed by Wei soldiers, and only his infant son can be saved.After the battle, Liu's master strategist Zhuge Liang is sent to the Kingdom of Wu to talk Sun Quan into an alliance against the Wei threat. Zhuge, who finds in Sun's general Zhou Yu a kindred spirit, convinces Sun to fight rather than surrender. The decision is taken to face Cao's army at the strategic stronghold of Red Cliff. During a first skirmish, Sun Quan's sister Sun Shangxiang's all-women cavalry force lures Cao's vanguard into a trap, and with the clever use of the Eight Trigrams Formation, Wu and Shu's forces defeats the enemy.Cao's forces set up camp on the opposite riverbank to Red Cliff, and begins to plan for a large-scale naval attack. However, Shangxiang infiltrates the camp and provides Sun and Liu with valuable reconnaisance. An outbreak of typhoid fever weakens Wei forces, but Cao cunningly sends contaminated corpses to Red Cliff, resulting in Wu and Shu soldiers strickened with the deadly infection. Disheartened by the epidemic, Liu Bei pulls out of the alliance, although Zhuge stays behind out of personal loyalty to Zhou Yu. In order to remedy Wu's lack of arrows, Zhuge sends straw boats within range of Wei forces, and the latter unleash thousands of arrows into the boats.Shangxiang returns from Cao's camp with a map of his army's formation. In order to buy time for a southeastern wind to be used as a fire attack in Wu's preemptive, Zhou's wife Xiao Qiao personally goes to Cao, knowing he has long since been infatuated with her, with the intent to distract him while Wu attacks. As the wind turns in the middle of the night, Wu send fireships to destroy Cao's navy, while Liu Bei, who had only faked defection, strikes Cao's camp from land. With the Battle of Red Cliff finished, Cao finds himself defeated and retreats to the North.
Contains examples of:
Action Girl: Sun Shangxiang; also technically a Lady of War, since she's a princess, if a rather tomboyish one.
Zhao Wei would again dress as a man while playing the titular character Hua Mulan.
There's a possible jab at Lin Chiling's career in modelling, when Zhou Yu drinks her tea and praises it to her face, like he was in a commercial.
Speaking of whom, Zhou Yu interrupts Zhang Fei's calligraphy practice in order to analyse his handwriting. This was actually a plot point when Tony Leung starred in Hero.
Adaptational Badass: Xiao Qiao. No, really. From a side character most people with passing knowlege of Three Kingdoms have never heard of, to someone who walks right into enemy territory and calmly has tea with the Magnificent Bastard, it's safe to say John Woo has done for Xiao Qiao what Michael Bay did for Bumblebee. It's not hard to see how rumors that she would get a fight scene as well would come about.
Angry Eyebrows: Gan Xing's give him a perpetual scowl similar to Japanese woodblock prints of ancient samurai (appropriate since his actor is Japanese).
Animal Motifs: Zhuge Liang and Sun Quan compare Cao Cao to a tiger they hunt in the woods. The hunt is really a Secret Test of Character for Sun Quan to decide on whether or not to go to war with Cao Cao.
Annoying Arrows: Most of the characters shrug off up to half a dozen arrows
However, averted with infantrymen. And Gan Xing, who's Genre Savvy enough to know he's pretty much dead, thus goes for the Suicide Attack.
Battle Chant: Cao Cao's troops are dying of typhoid. Then, in a rare, villainous example of this trope, he gives a rallying speech to his men, who gather around him and together with the rest of his troops begin chanting 'Victory!' over and over again.
The opening where Liu Bei's army is on the retreat.
The climax of Part One, where the allies ambush Cao Cao's cavalry using the tortoise formation.
The climax of Part Two, perhaps one of the purest examples of this trope ever, running over half an hour of unbroken screen time in which the allies launch their full-blown assault on Cao Cao's camp, complete with catapults, hails of arrows, exploding fire ships, bombs, cavalry charges, and much more.
Bittersweet Ending: Cao Cao is defeated, but at great cost to both sides. It's worse for those who know what happened next between the Shu and Wu alliance.
Cannot Spit It Out: Xiao Qiao can't bring herself to tell Zhou Yu that she's pregnant until she pretends to defect to Cao Cao, however she all but spells it out for him before that.
Actually, she spells it out much earlier, when he asks her why she keeps writing the same Chinese characters for "peace" over and over again, and she puts his head to her stomach, asking if he can hear anything. Zhou Yu was apparently holding the Idiot Ball at the time.
He seems like less of an idiot in the full version. They had been trying to name a foal that Zhuge Liang helped birth recently.
Captain Ersatz: Gan Xing, based on the historical Gan Ning, right down to being a former pirate. Nobody knows why it was changed, since everyone else was real.
Probably because Gan Xing dies during the movie, while Gan Ning historically survives the battle. On the other hand, there's also Xiahou Jun, presumably a stand-in for Xiahou Yuan or Xiahou Dun.
Casual Danger Dialogue: During the straw boat scheme, along with a cup of tea. Turns out they merely collect the arrows and don't provide much defense against them...
Zhou Yu, too. The northerners know him more for being a great musician, and their southern allies have to warn him that he has been their deadliest foe for years.
Deadly Dodging: In the second part, Zhao Yun does this against Wei pikemen coming at him from all sides, with predictable results.
Demoted to Extra: To a certain extent, Huang Gai. Historically, one of the reasons the Wu fleet was able to pull off the fire attack was because Cao Cao was expecting Huang Gai's ships from a false surrender ruse. This was expanded in the novel with an elaborate plan known as the "Bitter Meat Scheme" involving a beating and some Feed the Mole. Hand Waved in the film when Huang suggests the plan to Zhou Yu, but Zhou dismisses it, saying it's unnecessary. He still appears in many scenes, often as Those Two Guys with Lu Su, and still leads the initial fire attack.
Distracted by the Sexy: Most of the male characters become visibly flustered when Shangxiang takes her enemy uniform off in front of them, before Xiao Qiao makes them turn away.
Xiao Qiao uses this tactic to buy time for the Sun army.
Due to the Dead: Zhou Yu decides to give the bodies of soldiers Cao Cao sent across the river a proper funeral, despite them being enemies.
Ephebophile: Cao Cao admits that he was first taken to Xiao Qiao when he visited her father and caught sight of her quite a while back. "So very young, yet already a lady." YMMV on whether this fits the Moral Event Horizon better than the actual example below.
It is also debatable whether he is an ephebophile or he suffers from Single-Target Sexuality. Insofar as the movie is concerned, he is only interested in women that at least resemble of Xiao Qiao. He certainly does not lose interest in her when she becomes an adult. This is a plot point.
Epic Flail: In the first part, a huge chain of spiked rods is used to break a seemingly-impassable shield barrier. In the second part, Zhao Yun rips the ropes off a burning barricade with his spear and uses it (still burning too) like this.
Epic Movie: This is big for China, a big place we're talking about, and one of the most famous Chinese historical dramas.
Expository Hairstyle Change: At the end of the big battle, an arrow undoes Cao Cao's topknot, and his hair comes undone. It symbolizes his defeat (while paradoxically making him look more badass)
Long, unfastened hair on men would only be considered badass to Western audiences. To the Chinese, only the mad, the homeless, and/or the poorest of the poor would wear their hair that way — emphasizing Cao Cao's defeat.
Expy: Gan Xing is based on Gan Ning (courtesy name Xingba). "based" because the historical/novel Gan Ning didn't die— much less did a Heroic Sacrifice, in the Red Cliffs campaign. Also, he dies at the Battle of Xiaoting in the hands of Shamoke in Romance of the Three Kingdoms.
And then she does the same thing to Liu Bei. The Oh Crap looks on Zhuge Liang and Lu Su's faces when they realize what she's up to are priceless
First Love : Sun Shangxiang, the princess of Wu, forcibly rejects any proposal ideas her brother makes including knocking out Liu Bei with a punch, and falls in love with a soldier from Wei who also happens to be the star athlete. The first time she saw him, he single-handidly dominated a soccer-esque game.
The athlete also happens to be dumb—and strong—as an ox. And she was masquerading as a man at the time. So whether this constitutes love or friendship is open to interpretation.
Xiao Qiao asks Zhou Yu whether the bloodshed could have been avoided if they simply sat down with Cao Cao and discussed it over tea. Towards the end of the movie, that's pretty much what she does.
Not a foreshadowing of anything in the film, but the exchange between Zhou Yu and Zhuge Liang about the possibility of them ending up on opposite sides of a battle in the future is precisely what happens a little while later.
Genghis Gambit: The alliance between the Shu and Wu is very much the result of them facing a common threat
Heroic BSOD: Sun Shangxiang when her friend in the Wei Army is killed before her eyes. She doesn't move until after the battle is over.
Historical Beauty Update: The biggest examples are probably heart-throbs Takeshi Kaneshiro and Chang Chen as Zhuge Liang and Sun Quan, respectively. Tony Leung as Zhou Yu may be an exception, as Zhou Yu was actually considered very handsome by his contemporaries.
The popularity of Red Cliff is probably one reason why BB Senshi Sangokuden got an Animated Adaptation. Regardless, Sangokuden is awesome in its own right
Many tropers (including this one) are probably a little more familiar with Koei's Dynasty Warriors series, where Red Cliff is The Battle of Chi-Bi, although the series share little in common with this movie, aside from characters and small tidbits of reference to the Romance of the Three Kingdoms
Similarly, in the first part, Zhou Yu and Zhuge Liang play zithers together instead of discussing the potential alliance. They apparently gain an understanding of each other by how the other plays, and thus secure the alliance without actually talking about it at all.
Ms. Fanservice: Xiao Qiao stars in a Gratuitious Sex Scene with Zhou Yu to make the audience care about her more, since she goes to Cao Cao's camp before the actual battle later after in an attempt to get him to throw the fight. Also, she is usually the focus of the scenes she's in and the camera also loves to focus whatever part of her skin she has exposed at that time, notably on that Bare Your Midriff scene.
Chang Chen as Sun Quan; his Taiwanese accent is so thick you could cut it with a knife.
Shidō Nakamura as Gan Xing also has some noticeably Japanese touches to his Mandarin.
Oh Crap: Cao Cao's tricked into believing his two surrendered fleet admirals are traitors, and realizes he's being duped at the last possible second. "My Lord, if you kill them, who will lead the navy?" "...HALT!" *slice* He stands there paralyzed with anger
As Lady Sun prepares to give her prospective fiancee Liu Bei a Tap on the Head, Lu Su (who'd suffered from the same technique earlier, albeit via his horse) realizes just beforehand and is this personified.
Also when he looks on with shocked disbelief as the wind changes direction and Huang Gai commences the fire attack.
Omnidisciplinary Scientist: Zhuge Liang, on top of being a brilliant strategist, is also something of an expert in music, medicine, meteorology, midwifery and rearing pigeons. The movie itself hangs a lampshade on this.
Pet the Dog: Cao Cao's speech to his sick troops, which galvanizes his entire army behind him.
Alternative Character Interpretation: Cao Cao is just showing how charismatic he is to manipulate his soldiers into fighting for him. It's actually more likely an accurate interpretation considering it's Cao Cao.
Please Put Some Clothes On: When Shangxiang strips to her undergarments to unroll the map of Cao Cao's camp she had smuggled out under her clothes, Xiao Qiao repeatedly tries to get her to put her robe back on.
Rain of Arrows: Played with by the Genre Savvy Zhuge Liang, who uses his famous straw boat ruse to steal Wei's arrows. It works so well, the ships start listing before he turns them around.
Rasputinian Death: It takes a lot to kill those guys, especially if they're generals.
Rousseau Was Right, Humans Are Bastards: Every faction simply wants to unite China under their respective rule and bring about an era of peace. The fact every faction is willing to kill lots of people to do so...
Shoot the Messenger: Cao Cao orders the execution of a Wu emissary who brings him news that Sun Quan won't surrender.
Signature Style: If there's one director in the whole world who could somehow insert a Mexican Standoff in a period movie, it's John Woo. You've got Cao Cao and Zhou Yu with swords at each other's throats, Cao Hong with a sword to Zhou's back, then Sun Quan with a bow and arrow aimed at Cao, and just to add flavor, Xiahou Jun holds Xiao Qiao hostage.
John Woo's favourite avians make an appearance yet again, and this time, they're even plot-important!
Single Malt Vision: After drinking with Zhou Yu, Jiang Gan sees double when he overhears him speaking about borrowing arrows from friends across the river.
Suicide Attack: Gan Xing, already wounded by a dozen or so arrows, brings down Cao Cao's main gate by charging at it and throwing explosive charges at suicidally close range. He gets killed in the resulting blast.
Sweet Polly Oliver: Shangxiang disguises herself as a soldier in order to infiltrate Cao Cao's camp.
War Is Hell: Yes, the fight sequences are awesome, but they're also horrifyingly brutal and several scenes in the film are used to illustrate the tragedy caused. While the B plot with Shangxiang overly reeks of Romantic Plot Tumor, seeing the man who befriended her die before her eyes pretty much destroys her initial wide-eyed belief that being in battle is cool
Lampshaded earlier in Part 1:
Zhuge Liang: "Princess, have you ever fought in a war?"
Sun Shangxiang: "There's always a first time!"
Zhou Yu: "The first time I fought, I wished there was never a second."
Xiao Qiao: "I've read your strategy books in secret; the better to understand you."
You Have Failed Me: Cao Cao executes his admirals for falling for Zhuge Liang's aforementioned ruse. To be fair, it's also because he'd been given false information about their being on the other side's payroll