Andy Lau does epic in “Battle of Wits”, a mostly forgotten big-budget period film from China, utilizing a pan-Asian cast from Mainland China, Hong Kong, and South Korea. Like its Chinese epic brethrens of 2006, “Curse of the Golden Flower” and “The Banquet” to name but a few, “Battle of Wits” was created with the intention of selling internationally, taking advantage of the market created by 2000’s “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”, and held open by hits such as Zhang Yimou’s “House of Flying Daggers”. Alas, it’s not too hard to see why “Battle of Wits” has gone mostly ignored, as the film is overly tedious in its earnestness, and possesses an inability to bring anything worthwhile to the ever-expanding niche in which it seeks to thrive.
Based on a popular manga by Ken’ichi Sakemi and set during China’s Warring States period (roughly the 5th to 3rd BC), “Battle of Wits” stars Hong Kong superstar Andy Lau as Ge Li, a brilliant military tactician from the Mozi tribe who has come to the small city-state of Liang to rescue its citizens from the domination of Zhao. An imposing, bellicose nation bent on uniting all of China under its warring flag, Zhao sees Liang as little more than a slight bump on its way to greater glory, but the appearance of Ge Li turns that bump into a molehill. Skilled in the arts of siege defense, Ge Li rallies the people of Liang to defend themselves, using any and all means at his disposal. But cowardice, traitorous citizenry, and Royal political intrigue seek to undo Ge Li’s work.
Very early on, director and writer Jacob Cheung makes it clear that he is not interested in the aerial kinetics of movies like “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” and its ilk. As a result, the battles in “Battle of Wit” are grounded, and no one ever jumps more than a couple of feet off the ground unless they’re falling down a wall filled with arrows. There are also no flying swordfights or grandiose duels, and the film seems to glory in its down-and-dirty approach to ancient Chinese warfare. More “Braveheart” than “Hero”, Cheung and company have turned in an old-fashioned epic war movie, complete with heavy doses of pontification about morality and its place in warfare. Much of the latter surfaces as a result of Ge Li’s attempts to rationalize his Mozi philosophy of universal love and pacifism with his goal of defending Liang at all costs.
Unfortunately the very thing that sets “Battle of Wits” apart from other Chinese period epics is the same thing that makes it somewhat of a bore to sit through, this despite the film’s many, many battle scenes. The battles themselves are quite well done, and while Cheung eschews much of the fancy camerawork used by his colleagues trying to sell similarly fashioned products to the West, there are the occasional panning shots of amassing and attacking armies, and Cheung is not shy about employing CGI arrows and other assorted weaponry for effect.
In the lead, Andy Lau is in fine form early on, coming across like a Master Jedi arriving to save the day (complete with hood and cloak as he arrives at the gates of Liang, no less) rather than the pacifist who surfaces in the second half. We learn that this is, in fact, Ge Li’s first war campaign, and he really shouldn’t be as good as he is at it. Alas, this is where the film gets a little inconsistent: it wants us to believe that Ge Li is a newcomer to war, and yet it has him win almost every military engagement. Ge Li doesn’t act like a rookie, as he outthinks, outfoxes, and outmaneuvers every single one of the Zhao commander’s strategies with little to no effort. This guy is so good at warfare that the script should have just changed his name to Sun Tzu and be done with it.
The biggest name among the international cast is the venerable South Korean actor Sung-kee Ahn, who plays the Zhao General tasked with crushing Liang. Ahn is good, but not overwhelming, and Andy Lau’s contemporary swagger upstages Ahn every time their characters meet, in particular a tense board game played out in the open, as the two men’s respective archers lay in wait to fire at the first sign of treason. Other members of the cast are hit and miss, most notably Bingbing Fan as a royal female cavalry officer who spends more time indulging in girly crushes on Ge Li than she does convincing us she deserves her title of commanding officer.
It’s hard to put a finger on what it is exactly about “Battle of Wits” that fails to capture the imagination. Then again, maybe that’s it — the film doesn’t seem to have a lot of imagination, and as a result, comes across as a competent, but ultimately drab and listless exercise in filmmaking. It is not a bad movie in the sense that it is unwatchable, because it is very much watchable. Although one does get the impression that the film simply has no real grand ambition other than to be well-made, which unfortunately means it can only elicit a mild acknowledgement of its competency, and little else.
Jacob Cheung (director) / Jacob Cheung (screenplay), Ken’ichi Sakemi (comic)
CAST: Sung-kee Ahn …. Xiang Yan-zhong
Siu-hou Chin …. General Niu Zi Zhang
Si Won Choi …. Prince Liang Shi
Bingbing Fan …. Yi Yue
Tin Chiu Hung …. Gao He-yong
Andy Lau …. Ge Li
Zhiwen Wang …. Liang Wang
Ma Wu …. Si Tu
Nicky Wu …. Zi Tuan