Slaughter in the Year of the Horse

It was the Chinese New Year, and so I marked the occasion by watching a couple of Chinese films, the big, grand scale epics that they do so well.

Red Cliff (2008/9)

John Woo’s four and a half hour film of the events leading up to and the battle of Red Cliff itself. It’s certainly spectacular to look at, but I had problems with the subtitles, which were the smallest I can recall seeing in any film, and sometimes simply ‘whited out’ against the backdrop, so that I probably understood only about half the dialogue, enough to follow the story but not to catch subtle nuances (e.g. I’m still wondering what was going on with the peasant’s stolen oxen). There were also problems of scale, in that on the DVD case we are told that Cao Cao has a million man army, but in the film only 800,000, while the opposition can, at various times, put one hundred, fifty and thirty thousand men in the field. Other niggles included the idea that, in a fleet of over a thousand ships, only the two admirals would know about changes in wind direction, the apparent ignorance of one warlord that his retreat is simply a ruse while all his underlings seem aware, and the possible attempt to poison Cao Cao, which just gets left up in the air.

Niggles though, and I can’t say that I was ever bored by this film even though it stretched over four hours. Most of what we saw on the screen was ravishing, but not at the cost of the story. Prime Minister Cao Cao takes advantage of the youth and weakness of the Han emperor to raise a huge army and invade the southlands – his motives are, at various times, classified as the desire to wipe out warlords, lust for the wife of Viceroy Zhou Yu and a play for the throne. Defeated in battle Liu Bei seeks sanctuary and alliance with Sun Quan and war is engaged. Woo keeps the film moving along, helping us identify with the main players with scenes of show not tell, interspersed with battles, moments of romance and humour (mostly thanks to smugly agreeable advisor Zhuge Liang). By the time we reach the three hour mark we know and care about these people, with even Cao Cao given a good side in that he can rouse and inspire the common soldiers under his command. And then all hell breaks loose with the final battle on land and water, the southerners using their wits and every tactical advantage they can come up with to offset the enemy’s superior numbers.

Like other Chinese epics I’ve seen, there’s something of the old Greek tales of heroes thrown into the mix, with scenes of armies clashing offset by bouts of individual heroics, one highly skilled warrior dispersing numerous cannon fodder without breaking a sweat. It’s something that I find hard to credit and at the same time inspirational, that one man can defeat many, though I’m also slightly off put by the way in which bloody combat is reduced to displays of balletic grace under pressure. No matter. As remarked in another context, I’ll keep telling myself it’s only a movie. And an immensely enjoyable one at that.

White Vengeance (2011)

Not as long as the Woo, at only 132 minutes, and without the huge budget, this is a film that provides plenty of action but with the underlying feel of some Shakespearian tragedy playing out. With the imminent collapse of Qin rule, two Chu warlords who have been allies against the common enemy, now become rivals to fill the power vacuum. Liu Bang is perhaps the better man for the role of ruler, but Xiang Yu has the much bigger army, and so the contest is fought not just by troop movements, but through guile and diplomacy, endless manoeuvring for position and tactical advantage. And, in one sense, both men are simply figureheads for their advisers, masters of the oriental game of Go who here compete with real people instead of black and white stones.

The framing device, a teacher taking his students for a history lesson in the field and getting his facts from the horse’s mouth, seemed slightly contrived to me, while the battle scenes weren’t as impressive as those in Red Cliff albeit still with the same outbreaks of ‘super heroics’. And at first I thought the characters were rather poorly drawn, but all that changes as you get pulled into the film. The play of move and counter move is fascinating to watch, the balance of power shifting first one way and then the other, with the game of Go used to excellent effect in the various strategies. In the end one warlord loses, but has the consolation of true love and a noble death, while the other wins but faces a lifetime of distrust and fear as the ruler. And the seeds of their undoing are sown by the rival advisers, with flashbacks cleverly used to reveal what has really happened, scenes watched again but with different eyes. Cliff was possibly the better movie, but this was a fine example of the genre too, one that fully engaged my sympathies.

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