Monday, January 28, 2008

Review: A Battle of Wits (Muk gong)

State Wars
Set in China’s Warring States period, A Battle of Wits focuses on the small, city-state of Liang. Getting news of a massive Zhao army en route to Liang, the politicos of Liang, including the Liang King (Wang Zhiwen), his prince Liang Shi (Choi Si Won), adviser Si Tu (Wu Ma) and General Niu (Chin Siu-Hou) must decide to either defend their keep, or surrender to the enemy. Before General Niu manages to officiate their surrender with Zhao general Xiang Yanzhong (Ahn Sung-Kee), a special Zhao regiment has already reached the gates of Liang. Moments before, aid from Liang ally, the Mozi tribe, came in the form of Mozi brethren Ge Li (Andy Lau). Before you mock his name, I should warn you that the Mozi are known for their deft in strategic warfare, and Ge Li proves this by successfully repelling the Zhao regiment. His accomplishment earned widespread adulation, including those from the Liang prince and female soldier Yi Yue (Fan Bingbing), much to the chagrin of the jealous king. He suspects that Ge Li may try to usurp his throne, and plots to do away with the Mozi after the Zhao army has given up on invading Liang. Taiwanese star Nicky Wu plays the Chinese Legolas, Zi Tuan.

A Battle of Wits is another one of those “against all odds” movies like Lord of the Rings, Troy and 300, with a city of 4,000 up against an army of 100,000. Most of the fun in Battle is from observing how Ge Li overcomes wave after wave of attacks from the Zhao. Actually, Ge’s defensive maneuvers are more about brutality than strategy - employing many cheap, gruesome tactics like spike traps and fire pits to kill as many enemies as you can within the shortest amount of time. Although the Zhao army lost only a fraction of their men, the psychological impact is severe, demoralising Xiang’s troops who were supposed to be on their way to a bigger, more important battle up north. But Xiang himself is no idiot, and devised some sly maneuvers of his own. It’s interesting to note the Mozi’s inner conflict between the two key components of his religion - “universal love” and cold pragmatism. It’s his love for humanity and peace that brought him to Liang’s aid, but cruel logic dictates that in order for Liang to survive, Zhao soldiers must die.’s Kozo described Ge Li as resembling a Jedi Knight. Apart from trudging about a sandy landscape in a brown, hooded robe, the Mozi is also very monk-like, keeps a short crop of hair, and abstains from material possessions and even a disrobing Fan Bingbing. You can say that his ability to outguess his opponent’s movements is a kind of Force power. The only thing missing is elegant sword skills and a lightsabre, though Ge is pretty wicked with a bow and a specially modified arrow.

My only gripe with the movie - the romantic subplot, which involves an improbable female soldier character in 5 B.C. China, who is porcelain-fair and pretty to boot. (Why couldn’t they just make her a Liang princess?) Admittedly, Fan Bingbing provides some much needed eye candy in a sea of grimy, ragged people that are the civilians of Liang. Either ways, it’s still leagues smarter and more entertaining than 300, and loses out to Troy only from a lack of star power (unless you see Fan, Wu and Super Junior member Choi as “stars”). It’s also better than the messily edited theatrical cut of Seven Swords. (I’m still waiting for the five-hour epic version, Mr. Tsui Hark.) Of course, in the biased eyes of this Rings fan, nothing beats Lord of the Rings. - BMF


Written and directed by Jacob Cheung Chi Leung (Never Say Goodbye, Midnight Fly). Stars Andy Lau Tak-Wah, Wang Zhiwen, Fan Bingbing, Chin Siu-Hou, Choi Si Won, Ahn Sung-Kee, Wu Ma and Nicky Wu. Based on the novel Bokko by Sakemi Ken'ichi.

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