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John Woo’s Epic Film…Red Cliff. Civil War in Ancient China

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Red Clilff Trailer

Every once in a while, a movie comes along that takes the visual depiction of battle to a new level (Braveheart, Saving Private Ryan).  John Woo’s epic film, Red Cliff, does just that. Based on the actual Battle of Red Cliffs (see the Red Cliff Wiki here) that took place in the winter 208 CE, the film depicts the conflict between northern Chinese Prime Minister Cao Cao, and a coalition of southern forces led by Liu Bei and Sun Quan. While fact and fiction undoubtedly blur, the film is based on Records of Three Kingdoms, which provides a more historical view of the epic battle than that depicted in the novel, Romance of the Three Kingdoms. Its American distributor is Magnolia Pictures who kindly sent me a review copy last week.

This film demands your full attention. It depicts both land-based and naval warfare in an age when weapons included sword and shield, bow and arrow, spear, and fire bombs. Woo went BIG in imagery and battle size. Cao Cao was reported to have brought 800,000 soldiers to invade the south on twently thousand ships so Woo used Army soldiers to supplement extras. Animators did the rest. Those interested in the animation techniques used in creation of the film will find interesting Bill Desowitz‘s article “The Battle of Red Cliff — John Woo Style!,” on the Animation World Network here. Pay particular attention to the Tortoise Shell Formation battle (below), one of the highlights of the film.

Turtle Formation Battle Scene

Animator’s also created the immense fleet of ships on which Cao Cao transported his army south. The climatic naval battle is beyond anything I’ve seen on film. Your attention is also required because the film, made in Mandarin, uses English subtitles that are occasionally difficult to see.

Red Cliff Trailer from Magnolia Pictures

Wildly popular in China since its 2008 release, Red Cliff is now available to American audiences in select theaters and through video on demand (VOD) in a abridged format (the original film is in two parts and runs over four hours).

The cast, while perhaps less familiar to American audiences, includes some of the most popular actors on the planet.

Zhang Feng-Yi (Prime Minister Cao Cao)
Tony Leung Chiu-Wai (Strategist and warrior Zhou Yu (Ye))
Takeshi Kaneshiro (Shu strategist Zhuge Liang)
Yong You (Liu Bei)
Chang Chen (Sun Quan)
Vicky Zhao Wei (Wu princess Sun Shang Xiang)
Lin Chi-Ling (Zhou Yu’s wife, Xiao Qiao)
Shido Nakamura (Gan Xing) [also appeared in Letters from Iwo Jima]
Hu Jun (Zao Yun)

HIGHLY RECOMMEND

New: A Dragon’s Head and a Serpent’s Tail: Ming China and the First Great East Asian War, 1592-1598

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It’s always a pleasure to receive a book about military history that’s a bit outside of my primary focus because invariably I learn something that informs my study. The good folks at the University of Oklahoma Press sent me a review copy of a new book by Kenneth M. Swope, A Dragon’s Head and a Serpent’s Tail: Ming China and the First Great East Asian War, 1592-1598. The book becomes Volume 20 of the Campaigns & Commanders Series edited by Gregory J. W. Urwin from Temple University.

A Dragon's Head

Professor Swope (left) has labeled this conflict, which included Japan, China, and Korea, as “the first great Asian War.” His is the first full-length scholarly study in English of a six year military event was pivotal to the history of warfare, drove advancement in military technologies, and produced naval battles that rivaled any in Europe.

Impressive is an extremely rich Bibliography, solid Notes, and a “Selected Chinese Character List. Swope also provides a “Dramatis Personae” section to assist with keeping the long list of players straight, a table of “Chinese Weights and Measures,” and a “Timeline of the War.” Eleven maps and fifteen illustrations are also included, the latter not for the squeamish.

I’ll be making time to read. Here’s a snippet from the Introduction…

Tucked away in a back alley of Kyoto, largely ignored amid the temples, pagodas, castles, and teahouses, stands a curious monument to the cold, calculating callousness of war in early modern East Asia. Called “Kyoto‘s least mentioned and most-often-avoided tourist attractions” by one scholar, the Mimizuka (Mound of Ears) and children’s playground actually contains what is left of thousands of severed and pickled Chines and Korean noses sent back to Japan’s overlord and instigator of the First Great East Asian War of 1592-98, Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1536-98).

Toyotomi Hideyoshi (Source: Wikipedia Commons)

Because heads, the normal proof offered to gain rewards for one’s deeds in battle in Japan, were too large and unwieldy to ship overseas, the Japanese resorted to severing the noses of slain foes and sending them home to satisfy the kampaku’s thirst for revenge against those who refused to accept his primacy in East Asia. Hideyoshi‘s men were assigned a quota of three Korean (or Chinese) noses per soldier. Although modern estimates vary, it is generally accepted that 100,000-200,000 noses eventually reached Japan, though some Koreans apparently survived the ordeal and spent the rest of their days without noses.

A photo of a Mimizuka shrine. Used with the permission of Nils Ferry (planetkyoto.com). {{CopyrightedFreeUse}})

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