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Battle of Wits, blu-ray

February 2009 SITE MAP   SEARCH

Battle Of Wits
cast: Andy Lau, Sung-kee Ahn, Zhiwen Wang, Bingbing Fan, and Si Won Choi

director: Chi Leung Cheung

133 minutes (15) 2007
widescreen ratio 2.35:1
Metrodome DVD Region 2 retail

RATING: 7/10
reviewed by Richard Bowden
Based on a very popular Japanese manga, Battle Of Wits (aka: Muk gong) concerns a critical time in Chinese history - that of the warring states period between the 5th and 3rd century BC. Colourful, full of intrigue and susceptible to a variety of dramatic interpretations, this time of national upheaval has been a rich source of inspiration for Asian cinema down the years. While not on the same level as, say, Hero, Battle Of Wits is an entertaining, vivid and dynamic piece of work. It also makes an intriguing calling card for western viewers of writer-producer-director Chi Leung 'Jacob' Cheung, as the film is not entirely characteristic of a filmmaker more regularly associated with smaller scale drama.

At the heart of Cheung's work is a siege, both of men and of hearts. Andy Lau plays Ge Li, a lone, wandering warrior, whose allegiances and actions are dictated by a particular philosophy called Mohism. He is called upon by the city state of Liang, threatened by the 100,000 strong army of Zhao, to help with their perilous defence. Inside the walls of Liang, Ge Li finds the challenge of facing up to this much larger force challenging as well as the coming to terms with his growing love of Yi Yue, a captain of the cavalry. Mohism was apparently the chief alternative to Confucianism at this point in Chinese history, and one of the most interesting things about Battle Of Wits is its rare representation on screen. Lower in the social order than the Confucians, the Mohists believed in universal love and peace, and were prepared to put their beliefs and skills to service in the freely given help of others.

Ge Li is typical of this class of thinker-soldier. As he arrives at Liang they are about to surrender to the superior force, and it is through his engineering and military skills that things are turned around. Unfortunately, the ruling establishment of Liang is not as grateful as one might think and, once they assume events are settled they accuse their helper of insurrection. A man troubled by what he does and moreover by if he is right doing it, as a proponent of 'universal love', the death of so many under Ge Li's command is no cause for celebration. His ideals mean that he would be bound to offer his services to Zhao if they needed his help in turn, without prejudice. It is partly this even-handedness which helps make him suspect to the king of Liang.

Being a Chinese-Japanese-Korean co-production of a work which condenses an 11-volume manga into just over two hours, Battle Of Wits is more successful and coherent than one might suspect, although there are problems. Lau's impact as superstar actor compensates for some of the weaknesses in the supporting cast and occasional creaky CGI but, unlike his on-screen character, he can't be everywhere at once. Critics of the film have pointed to the unevenness of the casting. Notably, the weak supporting acts of Bingbing Fan, playing Ge Li's love interest, and Si-Won Choi as Prince Liang Chi (who gradually recognises Ge Li as the honest and great warrior-philosopher he is). Both cast for their looks, it is suggested, rather than screen presence, they add little to the film outside of their appeal to a local fan-base and provide just adequate screen furniture. It's a shame, because while Ge Li has to contend with the armies outside the wall of Liang, his heart is also under more subtle attack by the charms of Yi Yue. A strong impact by the leading lady would have made the play off more dramatic. As it is, outside of a couple of telling scenes in which she draws out the tensions inherent in Ge Li's worldview and the demands of his heart, Yi Yue remains a bloodless heroine. So much so, that Ge Li's final search for her in the flooded fortress carries little empathy from the viewer.

But Battle Of Wits contains more good than bad as the director fills the screen with the hustle and bustle of siege warfare - often filmed incidentally in what looks like uncomfortably cold temperatures. One or two scenes remain in the mind in particular: the courtyard full of burning soldiers, for instance, fatally caught in the defenders' raining sulphur, or the night attack, the sky full of flaming arrows. Oddly enough, given his background, the director seems more at ease with such action sequences where he can work away from limitations elsewhere. Some have criticised his staging of military events as too static, but I thought them fluid enough and certainly exciting. If occasionally his film reminds one of outtakes of Kingdom Of Heaven (another film with an orchestrated siege defence at its core), then it still largely succeeds on its own terms, a semi-philosophical demonstration of the consequences of war, and one far from the grandiose orchestrations of Ridley Scott's epic.

As a good deal of the running time is spent visualising combat and martial drama, it's a good night in. In short, Cheung's film can be recommended to those who enjoyed such earlier epics as The Emperor's Shadow or The Emperor And The Assassin. The DVD offers a 50-minute making of documentary, which is well done, as well as trailers.

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