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A Battle of Wits

(left) Andy Lau, and (right) Ahn Sung-Ki in Battle of Wits.
Chinese: 墨攻
Year: 2006
Director: Jacob Cheung Chi-Leung
Producer: Jacob Cheung Chi-Leung, Huang Jianxin, Satoru Iseki, Lee Joo-Ick, Wang Zhongjun
Writer: Jacob Cheung Chi-Leung, Hideki Mori (original comic)
Action: Stephen Tung Wai
Cast: Andy Lau Tak-Wah, Ahn Sung-Ki, Fan Bing-Bing, Nicky Wu, Wang Zhiwen, Choi Si-Won, Wu Ma, Chin Siu-Ho, Sammy Hung Tin-Chiu
  The Skinny: Entertaining, though sometimes muddled war epic starring Andy Lau as a pacifist mercenary strategist. The film doesn't reach its full potential; the battle sequences are effective but shot inconsistently, and the film's themes are not entirely explored. Still, Battle of Wits is a very worthy effort, possessing potent themes, intriguing historical detail, and a refreshingly gritty feel.
by Kozo:

Andy Lau goes to war in A Battle of Wits, a period action drama set during China's famed Warring States Period. As history tells us, during that particular period of time (around 475 to 221 BC), China was split into numerous states, each attempting to usurp and conquer each other. The country would eventually be unified under Qin Shi Huang, the First Emperor of China, whose story was famously fictionalized in Zhang Yimou's celebrated Hero. That film was a beautifully-told epic that placed martial arts superheroes in China's dusty but beautiful barren landscapes. Those same dusty landscapes return for Battle of Wits, but the martial arts superheroes are nowhere to be seen. Battle of Wits eschews the big-budget Asian Cinema trend, opting out of gorgeous costumes and opulent art direction for grounded production values that seem much more real. That's right: nobody flies in Battle of Wits. Score one against Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon.

Battle of Wits takes place during 370 BC, in the small city-state of Liang, which finds itself threatened by the much larger kingdom of Zhao. Liang only possesses a handful of soldiers compared to Zhao's fast-approaching thousands, who are led by their renowned general Xiang Yanzhang (Korean actor Ahn Sung-Ki). But Liang has an ace-in-the-hole: a promise from the Mozi tribe to send help. The Mozi are followers of Mohism, a Chinese philosophy that actually existed way back when, but has since fallen out of favor since the Qin Dynasty came into being. The way the philosophy goes, it pushes a form of "Universal Love" and moral righteousness, preaching against offensive acts and wasting resources on personal extravagance - basically everything that a normal king during the time practices. As such, one would not expect Mozi to help Liang's selfish and usually drunken King (Wang Zhiwen). But Mozi help does arrive, in the form of Ge Li (Andy Lau), who shows up alone at the Liang gates wearing a hooded robe, which makes him curiously resemble a Jedi Knight. He's just one man, but within minutes he's convinced Liang's citizens to fight back, if only to protect their lives from certain cruel subjugation at Zhao's hands.

A master strategist and somewhat of a pacifist, Ge Li obviously cannot go the Seven Samurai route to kick Zhao ass, and instead teaches Liang how to defend themselves. Some people, including prince Liang Shi (Korean actor Choi Si-Won) and Liang's Royal Tutor (Wu Ma), are initially suspicious of Ge Li, as he asks for complete control of Liang's armies and total obedience in order to carry out his plan. What he doesn't want is any payment, or even cushy digs (he won't take gifts, and opts to sleep in the stables). This is a movie, so everyone agrees to this deal, letting Ge Li control their lives. As Ge Li, Andy Lau is charismatic and righteous, though the superstar's trademark strut is still conspicuous. He's initially distrusted by some of the populace, but before too long they're converted Ge Li fans. Ge Li does his part by being humble and self-effacing, and struts all over the dusty landscape like an Ancient Chinese superstar that can do no wrong. Among those who cotton to Ge Li's charms are chief archer Zi Yuan (Nicky Wu) and cavalry chief Yi Yue (Fan Bing-Bing), who starts to develop a romantic interest in Ge Li. Even Xiang Yanzhang soon grows to respect Ge Li, because on the battlefield Ge Li absolutely owns Zhao. Ge Li's brilliant defense strategy leaves Zhao with no option but retreat, and soon the whole city is in love Ge Li and his manly facial hair. However, Ge Li's popularity with the people is not well-liked by one person: the King of Liang himself. Oops.

Battle of Wits is essentially a tale of two halves. The first half of the film depicts Ge Li's arrival, rising influence, and initial clashes with Xiang Yanzhang's army. This portion of the film unfolds like a cerebral action film not unlike Seven Samurai, though it's much less insightful. The film occasionally focuses on a few lower-class individuals, affording us a cursory glimpse of the common man's view of the Zhao vs. Liang conflict. The politics and beliefs of the people are called into question, as everyone in Liang must learn to buy Ge Li's message of universal love, or reveal themselves to be selfish and generally crappy. However, the characters take a backseat to the action, which is presented on a larger scale than your typical Asian action films. There's pageantry missing, as the film goes for more realistic, grounded action and absolutely nothing in the way of punch/kick martial arts. This is a siege film, with swords, steel, blood, bodies, and the occasional wounded horse slammed together into an ancient times throwdown. The sequences are refreshing in their larger-than-normal scale, though they lack a consistency in style. There are some perfunctory sweeping shots, which reveal the use of passable, though not superior CGI, but there's also some close-up action which mars things. The action isn't always easy to follow, and some of the nighttime action is so grainy as to be distracting. Still, the first half of the film manages to entertain and even enthrall.

The second half is where the film's focus begins to waver. Once Ge Li has successfully defended Liang a few times, Zhao begins to consider retreat, which leads to a massive lull where people start behaving foolishly and talking far too much. Ge Li has proven himself as a capable, though somewhat superhuman leader, given his propensity to always be right about the enemy's actions. That aside, his success leaves the Liang's real leader, the King, somewhat in the lurch. With an assist from both the shortsighted Royal Tutor and the jealous General Niu (Chin Siu-Ho), Ge Li's status quickly falls from from local hero to royal pariah. Meanwhile, the film presents large ethical debates on fairness in war, some of which are not fully explored. Ge Li professes to be honorable, and decries the mistreatment of surrendered enemies. Still, one has to wonder how a pacifist feels about being complicit in so much death. The concept of Mohism and its "Universal Love" are given much lip service in the film, but the practicality of it is a hard sell. Pessimistically, it's a philosophy doomed to failure because not everyone will buy in, and a Mozi follower an easy scapegoat because their humble nature allows it to happen. Greed and dishonor can easily win the day. The price of being a follower of Mozi? Just honor and virtue.

Is that what the film is selling? Honor and virtue above all? Presumably yes, as the characters who engage in honorless pragmatism generally meet a poor fate. Then again, many of those who do buy into the whole "Universal Love" concept meet bad fates too, leading to the overriding message that war basically sucks, and the people running wars should really get a clue. These themes are timeless and potent, but the film has a hard time taking advantage of the complexity they offer. Mohism is portrayed very positively in Battle of Wits, but it comes off more like unchecked idealism than a belief system that could actually work in a realistic setting. These themes don't reach a definite point either, as the ideological battles frequently get settled in anticlimactic ways. Sometimes a conflict is settled with a conversation, and not during a tide-changing battle, which isn't that exciting. Once characters begin to act cartoonishly (namely the King and his attendants), Battle of Wits starts to get somewhat tiring. Blood, death, betrayal, greed, unrequited love, honorable warriors, dishonorable villains, crappy politicians, etc. - it's all here, and it's all a bit messy.

Still, having so much to chew on can sometimes be enough, and Battle of Wits presents it well enough that it feels worthwhile. The film never explores Mohism that deeply, but it's enough to create interest, especially where Ge Li is concerned. Ge Li is a larger-than-life cinema hero whose nobility, intelligence, and righteousness are laudable, and Andy Lau ably conveys the character's honor, if not his humanity. Ahn Sung-Ki makes a charming foil, and brings far more to his character than the script really allows. The dusty, dirty setting gives the film an engaging authenticity, and though the action isn't outstanding, it considerably adds to the film's pacing and excitement. Director Jacob Cheung may not be able to assemble all of his lofty ideas in Battle of Wits into one powerful thematic whole, but he does deliver a solid, entertaining film that's worth recommending. Frankly, if you consider the entirety of Hong Kong Cinema's output in 2006, Battle of Wits could even be called a must-see. So go see it. (Kozo 2006)

Notes: For more about Mohism, visit Wikipedia here.
Based on the Japanese manga Bokko, written and illustrated by Hideki Mori.
Availability: DVD (Hong Kong)
Region 0 NTSC
2-Disc Special Edition
16x9 Anamorphic Widescreen
Mandarin Language Track
Dolby Digital 6.1 EX / DTS ES
Removable English and Chinese Subtitles
Various Extras
*Also Available on Blu-ray Disc

image courtesy of Copyright 2002-2017 Ross Chen