Cons:rather long tho the editing won a Hong Kong Film Award
The Bottom Line: Another action-filled ancient Chinese history movie made by a polyglot cast and crew with a fascinating making-of bonus feature.
“Battle of Wits” is a more apt title than that on the box of the DVD, “Battle of the Warriors” (Mò Gông, 2006). There is a lot of action (not much sword-fighting and the wire work is not for fight scenes), but the movie is mostly about tactics along with consideration of strategy. Ge Li, the solo consultant who takes over the defense of the city-state of Liang (in 370 BC, during the Warring States period) is not only the master tactician, but is the only leader whose strategic vision is not blinded by ego.
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The movie was shot in Inner Mongolia (PRC Mongolia) by Hong Kong director Jacob Cheung with Hong Kong superstar Andy Lau (with short hair and a goatee) plays Ge Li the Mozi master at defending cities from invaders without attacking, and averse to the massacres that were popular. Nonetheless, defending a city of 4000, there are more than 5000 Zhao casualties.
Even knowing that the movie is based on a popular Japanese manga, Bokkou by Mori Hideki (I think the Japanese fascination with Mongolia is partly related to the possible (controversial) linguistic relationship of Japanese to Mongolian and other Altaic languages), I thought that the king of Liang (Wang Zhiwen) was more than a little a Mao figure, using leaders, then turning on them (Lin Bao, for instance). Also like Mao, the king was a drunkard.
The crown prince (Choi Siwon) is arrogant but comes to understand the virtú of Ge Li. Astoundingly, the commander of the Lian cavalry, Yi Yue (Fan Bingbing), is a young woman (not just played by a woman as in some of the gender-bending kung fu movies of Brigitte Lin et al.).
The movie has some antiwar sentiment, though this is probably interpreted in China as for centralization, against civil war, and Ge Li does not succeed in stopping the warfare or even the massacre by the soldiers under his nominal command.
Lau tactician is not flamboyant like the one Takeshi Kaneshiro played in “Red Cliff,” and the bombast of that (and of the conventional reading of “Hero”) is lacking. (Lord knows, Andy Lau can do flamboyant and turn on the charm, but is nearly grim here. I don’t remember him even cracking a smile.) There were a lot of extras, something that only Chinese historical movies seem to have available these days (though there is still some CGI stuff here).
Korean star Ang Sungki is impressive as the Zhao Commander Xiang Yan-Zhong, as formidable an opponent (and connoisseur of military tactics) as Cao Cao (Zhang Fengyi) was in “Red Cliff” (Chibi).
The video transfer was for the DVD not good. Some of the night shots are nearly invisible and the diurnal scenes seem soft, though not fuzzy. There is a lot that looks good, though not in comparison to “The House of Flying Daggers.”
The 53-minute making of featurette fascinated me. It showed how dangerous some of the stunts performed by the stars were, and the averse November conditions of the shooting. I don’t know how the water could have been -14C (the claim is not a mistranslation, but also made in Chinese, btw), but the shivering and chattering teeth of the stars after takes leaves no doubt that the water was plenty cold. The footage of shooting the movie also shows that neither the Koreans involved nor the Japanese understood Cantonese. (Keelung wondered about the origins of the Zhao general while we were watching the movie because of the oddity of his Mandarin pronunciation: he’s Korean, as was the actor playing the Liang prince. The archer who bests the prince in a dramatic archery competition is Taiwanese (Nicky Wu). The cinematographer (Sakamoto Yoshi_taka ) was Japanese. So was the composer of the music (Kawai Kenji), though he was not involved in the shooting of the movie.)
I knew that the movie was not directed by Zhang Yimou, but was somewhere between puzzled and annoyed that the box clains “from the action director of Hero.” It must mean stunt co-ordinator Stephen Tung Wei, who choreographed the fight scenes of Yang’s “Hero” and of “Warriors of Heaven and Earth.”
I liked “Battle” better than “Red Cliff" or “Three Kingdoms,” not as much as “The Warlords” and not nearly as much as “House of Flying Daggers.” (Lau has been in all of these except for “Red Cliff.”)
©2011, Stgephen O. Murray