REVIEW: DVD Release: Battle Of Wits

Film: Battle Of Wits
Release date: 18th January 2010
Certificate: 15
Running time: 133 mins
Director: Jacob Cheung
Starring: Andy Lau, Ahn Sungki, Wang Zhi Wen
Genre: Action/Drama/War
Studio: In2Film
Format: DVD
Country: China

The complexities of war are examined in Battle Of Wits, a period action drama set during China's infamous Warring States Period. A little research shows that, during that particular era (circa 470 to 220 BC), China was split into many states, each attempting to usurp power from and conquer each other. Unification would eventually arrive in the guise of Qin Shi Huang, China’s first Emperor, and a man whose story was wonderfully stylised in Zhang Yimou's hugely celebrated film Hero. While the films may share common settings and historical backgrounds though, the similarities end there. Hero was a shiny, stylised kung fu superhero movie, whereas Battle Of Wits is a much more down to earth and gritty proposition.

The story takes place during 370 BC, in the city-state of Liang, a small entity which finds itself under threat from the much larger kingdom of Zhao. Liang’s defence consists of a comparative handful of soldiers as opposed to Zhao's army, which is fast-approaching thousands and led by revered General Xiang Yanzhang (played by Ahn Sung-Ki). Liang has an ace up its sleeve, however: an undertaking from the Mozi to send help.

The Mozi people are followers of Mohism, a Chinese philosophy that encourages a form of ‘universal love’ and moral righteousness, preaching against offensive acts and personal extravagance (or capitalism. as we now know it). As such, it is surprising that the Mozi decide to help Liang's selfish and drunken King (Wang Zhiwen). But Mozi help does arrive, in the decidedly Jedi-esque form of Ge Li (Andy Lau), who shows up alone at Liang’s gates. He's just one man, but one thing we know from cinema is never to underestimate one man in a cape and hood. Within minutes, he's convinced Liang's citizens to fight back, if only to protect their lives from certain subjugation and cruelty at Zhao's hands.

Being a devout pacifist (and yet a master strategist), Ge Li obviously cannot follow the usual high kicking, sword wielding path to victory over Zhao. Instead he must focus on teaching the citizenry of Liang how to defend themselves. Some people, including Liang's Royal Tutor (Wu Ma) and Prince Liang Shi (Choi Si-Won), are (sensibly) initially suspicious of their would-be saviour, as he asks for complete control of Liang's army and total obedience in order to carry off his plan. What he doesn't want is any payment, or comfort - he won't accept gifts and opts to sleep in the stables. Like all great heroes, it seems that doing good is his reward.

While everyone agrees to this proposal, he's initially distrusted by some of the populace, but before too long they're devoted followers. Among those he carries in thrall 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 him, because on the battlefield Ge Li is untouchable. His skills and strategy ensure the safety of Liang and a lifetime of hero worship. However, Ge Li's popularity earns him a very powerful enemy: the King of Liang himself...

Battle Of Wits is essentially a story with two distinct halves. The first portion of the film depicts Ge Li's arrival, rising influence, and initial clashes and skirmishes with Xiang Yanzhang's army. We get the impression that we are watching a clever, insightful action/war movie - one that may get us thinking. The battle scenes, too, are a change from the usual high flying pageantry we’ve become so used to. The fight scenes are dirty, nasty and a simple combination of skin and steel. While the action can be hard to follow, and the CGI isn’t always of the highest calibre, it appears to strike a refreshing chord for those who may just be little bit jaded with the flying warriors formula.

All this good work is soon undone though as the film reaches its second half. Andy Lau is a fine performer, but his attempts at humility just do not work. He manages to prostrate himself in a way that makes the grandest posturing of the most arrogant rock star seem even keeled. When this is coupled with the upright morality the film overly espouses - anyone who doesn’t openly embrace Ge Li’s ‘universal love’ concept is soon shown to be greedy and a coward. His black-and-white world view is unreal, and, in the context of what had seemed like such a grounded action movie, it is particularly jarring.

As the story continues, the film presents many ethical and philosophical questions. We are asked to consider the ethical treatment of P.O.W.’s, whether all is, in fact, fair in war time, and can the notion of ‘universal love’ work among a varied and non indoctrinated population? Unfortunately, none of these questions are ever really explored to any great depth, leaving the film stranded somewhere between gritty epic and badly thought out message movie.

Battle Of Wits is a decent film - nothing more. It will never be a milestone in the industry, or indeed the genre, but there is enough here to entertain us. Where it falls down is in not quite being one thing or another. Early promise and potential are squandered in the second half of the film. There are good ideas here; it just seems that Jacob Cheung wasn’t the right man to explore them. PD

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