Fri, Dec 08, 2006 - Page 17 News List

A war epic with peacenik pretensions

A different breed among the resplendent yet hollow Chinese epic flicks, Hong Kong director Jacob Cheung's 'A Battle of Wits' aims to deliver a humble reflection on the nature of war


Andy Lau, center, plays the austere disciple torn between his double roles as a messenger of peace and a military consultant.


From Zhang Yimou's (張藝謀) Hero (英雄) to Chen Kaige's (陳凱歌) fantasy epic The Promise (無極), Chinese cinema has seen the rise of huge-budget period dramas competing against each other with lavish sets, dazzling visual effects and spectacular choreography but which are often criticized as gorgeous yet hollow shells that lack narrative substantiality.

Hong Kong veteran director Jacob Cheung (張之亮) wants to do something different with A Battle of Wits (墨攻). Steering clear of its stylistic and sometimes flashy counterparts, the film chooses to dwell on the nature of war from a realistic and unflattering perspective.

Set against the chaotic warfare of China's Warring States Period (403BC to 221BC), the film opens with a Mozi disciple named Ge Li (played by Andy Lau) being appointed as military strategist charged with defending a besieged city ruled by the ruthless emperor Liang. Advocating Mozi's philosophy on universal love and non-aggression in the face of cruelty, the austere sage sees himself as a protector of the city's 4,000 inhabitants rather than as a mastermind behind the gory battles.

Fighting side by side with the people, Ge Li gradually wins the respect and love of the city's dwellers and the despotic ruler's resentment as his popularity increases. Believing the troops from the Kingdom of Zhao have been repulsed by Ge Li's tactics, emperor Liang drives the hero away but later finds his city is again under siege by the remaining Zhou warriors who have vowed to revenge their dead comrades.

The wise man comes back and saves the day, but only to find I Yueh, the woman he loves, lying dead in a dungeon.

Eschewing the romanticism of war epics, the film presents the battle scenes in somber undertones without much violence. A digitally processed combat scene is especially memorable as it depicts soldiers dying in agony in an oil painting-like sequence that successfully alienates audiences from the plot and provides a pause to contemplate the violence and war from a distance.

Film Notes:

A Battle of Wits (墨攻)Directed by: Jacob Cheung (張之亮)Starring: Andy Lau (劉德華) as Ge Li, Wang Zhiwen(王志文) as Emperor Liang, Choi Si Won as Liang Shih, Ahn Sung-ki as Hsiang Yan Chung, Nicky Wu (吳奇隆) as Tzu Tuan, Fan Bingbing (范冰冰) as I YuehTaiwan release: TodayLanguage: In Mandarin with English subtitles

Without a doubt, the tactics and strategies of defense and assault are the selling points of the film. From underground tunnels to hot air balloon attacks, the movie offers an array of techniques that show off ancient China's military wisdom. Yet, the sequences lack the tension to excite and the overall storyline plods on in a somewhat dull and straightforward manner with unimaginative camera work.

Though relying on Mozi's thinking, the film fails to elaborate on the Chinese sage's philosophy and to deliver a coherent anti-war discourse. Ge Li's occasional reflections on the war are vague and frothy as the narrative gives more weight to the human drama. Interestingly, it is when one stops viewing the work as a study of Mozi's philosophy that the main theme emerges. Using a philosophical system that preaches universal values as a premise, the film in fact delivers a rather appealing story on how individuals act in the face of conflicts: Ge Li is torn between the ideal and reality, between his double roles as a messenger of peace and a military consultant.

The film also benefits from solid performances by the assemblage of stars from Taiwan, Hong Kong, China and South Korea. The only weak link is the role of female general I Yueh played by Chinese actress Fan Bingbing. A two-dimensional character whose mere function is to add a bit of romance, the character's love affair with Ge Li seems to unnecessarily interrupt the plot. Critics may argue that the character was never meant to be a real person but a symbolic figure to challenge Ge Li's belief in universal love when she wisely tells him, "you talk about universal love because you don't know how to choose the ones to love."

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