Writer: Helena HonWriter Ratings:Overall: Cast: Plot: Effects: Cinematography: Watch this if you liked:
Don't be fooled by the title of this movie. If you can't read Mandarin (like me) and are forced to depend on the English translation for everything spoken and written, then upon finding out that Andy Lau is in it and reading the English title, you just might conjure up images of some ludicrous Hong Kong predilection like Mahjong where the protagonists would be trying to outwit each other in a slapstick fashion to win in the national finals. Well, you can be forgiven for thinking that, if you do - after all, Andy Lau was last seen wearing a silly muscle suit and singing love songs to a lovelorn and very inebriated man in the comedy "I'll Call You" not too long ago. I seriously thought "A Battle of Wits" would be a comedy.
Actually, the movie's far from it, so far that it's in fact, dead serious. "A Battle of Wits" is really a lavish period drama about China in the 3rd Century. At the core of it is the story of a man, a Mozi tribesman called Ge Li (Andy Lau) who comes to save the walled and peaceful land of Liang from falling into the hands of the kingdom of Zhao. Greedy Zhou is sending a 25,000 strong army to plunder the little city to the ground.
The king of Liang, (Wang Zhiwen) a slimy power-hungry creep of man who cares so little for his people that he prefers to get drunk when his city is on the brink of being attacked, leaves the running of the warriors to his young son, the prince of Liang (Choi Si-Won). The young man, at his wits end (because most of the men in his city are farmers) is considering surrender when in walks Ge-Li who advices them to fight. He reasons the outcome would be the same whether they fought or not; the men would be taken in as slaves, the women defiled and the spoils of the land confiscated, so why not give it their best shot even if they only have sticks and stones as their weapons.
It is Ge-Li, the lone saviour from nowhere who galvanises everybody into action, coming up with ideas and suggestions of building a bulwark from the palace wall stones in seven days to strong hold the enemy out. He thinks up ways to keep their water and food supply safe and like MacGyver, fashions defence ploys out of everyday things, like the use of manure as a blanket on the villagers' thatched roofs to prevent the spread of fire from flaming arrows.
But while there is a lot of cerebral action such as discussions on the art of war, military tactics, and convincing the king to trust him, there is very little physical action or fighting. If and when there is, it looks staged. Then there is the subplot Yi Yue (Fan Bingbing), a woman warrior who falls in love with Ge-Li and what she does to win his heart.
Liang wins the war and Zhou is driven out eventually but not before several attempts are made to re-enter Liang, one of which is through tunnelling under the city. When peace once more descends, king Liang gets jittery as Ge Li is now so popular he fears that there may be too much support for Ge-Li where his power may be usurped by the hero. So he orders Ge-Li arrested and thrown out. Those who stand up for him are imprisoned and killed.
First, it's a fraction from outside, and then it's a fraction from within. The city of Liang now crumbles from the rot, born out deceit, betrayal and jealousy. There is a lot of finger-pointing and several tragic deaths as Ge-Li tries to spread his message of peace: that men shouldn't kill out of hatred, only out of necessity and in self defence but what does he get? Not one bit of thanks. In the end, Ge-Li finds that he is fighting a very, very lonely battle, facing war from his enemies and then war from his "allies". I won't tell you what happens in the end but the message I get from the story is that nice guys always finish last.
"A Battle of Wits" is a little like the Chinese version of "Troy" (Ge-Li being the sore thumb like Achilles) with some of the water-logged parts (there is a massive flooding) reminding me of the rescue scene in the flooded cabins between Rose and Jack in "Titanic". Even the soundtrack is a little like "Troy" with operatic singing and all but the battle scenes don't come close to the awesomeness or fierceness of the Hollywood production. In fact, the acting in all is a little contrived and everything comes across detached and stilted. As a result, the audience never gets to "feel" for anyone, not even for Ge-Li and once in a while, break out in titters when they are not supposed to.
It's a pity that Jacob Cheung did not develop this historical drama in terms of its characterisation and better acting. The cinematography is not bad though and the costumes are nice - modern, yet incorporating the ancient. However, two hours and 15 minutes is too long to devote to a manifestation of a history book for indeed that's what "A Battle of Wits" really is. As a result, I was quite bored and was immensely relieved when the movie came to its arduous and protracted end.Cinema Online, 23 September 2008