An Asian big-budgeter in which the characters don’t get lost among the production design and special effects, costume action-drama “A Battle of Wits” more than lives up to its title. Engaging yarn in which a canny strategist helps a town defend itself against hostile hordes, pic manages to meld a mixed Chinese-Korean cast into an involving story of psychological warfare and military bluffs, while still delivering the goods on the action front. Toplined by Andy Lau in one of his best recent perfs, pic could have a career in the West with the right marketing.
Co-production did good business in Hong Kong and China late last year, and goes out in South Korea on Jan. 11. Surprise is that the director is Jacob Cheung, whose career (“Beyond the Sunset,” “Cageman,” “Intimates”) has largely been in melodrama and more intimate metaphysical fare.
Though the movie is adapted from a series of novels and mangas, Cheung has gone for realism instead of wire-fu and f/x fantasy. Pic doesn’t quite have the over-reaching arc of a major epic, but it’s strong throughout on personal relationships.
Setting is 370 B.C., during the chaotic Warring States period prior to China’s unification under a single leader. Zhao State has declared war on Yan State but, to get there, Zhao’s mighty, 10,000-strong army has to pass Liang City (pop. 4,000), ruled by no-good drunk Lord Liang (Wang Zhiwen). In a panic, the burg sends out a plea for help to the famous Mozi warrior clan, which is slow in replying.
Just when the Zhao forces, led by brilliant general Xiang Yanzhong (Korean vet Ahn Sung-ki), amass outside the city, a single Mozi warrior, Ge Li (Lau), comes trotting to the rescue. To the general scorn of Liang’s warriors, he urges them not to surrender; but after a display of archery that initially scares off the Zhao troops, Lord Liang hands over command of his army to the raggedy and less-than-inspiring Ge Li.
This opening stanza is played in a mixture of regular costume drama marbled with a strain of light humor that sets the tone for the whole film. Pic’s ongoing fascination lies in how the diminutive but calmly assured Ge Li is going to pull off his promise to save the city, which is torn by internal political tensions and would appear to be easy pickings for the Zhao juggernaut.
Ge Li’s initial wheeze is to use palace masonry to build a bulwark to protect the city’s weakest point. He’s supported in this by Yi Yue (Mainland actress Fan Bingbing), femme head of the Liang cavalry, and champion archer Zi Tuan (former Taiwan boy-bander Nicky Wu). First big set piece, as the city just manages to fend off an assault by Zhao troops, is a terrific 12-minute sequence of grit and daring, staged by Hong Kong action ace Stephen Tung.
Though far from being 100% realistic, the film has a real feel for the realities of ancient warfare, with Ge Li’s nimble brain pitted against the lumpen force of the Zhao army. But as Ge Li manages to trump the enemy again and again, Lord Liang’s chief advisor (Hong Kong’s Wu Ma) stirs resentment against the city’s savior, and Ge Li finally appears to throw in the towel.
Without becoming doctrinaire, later reels have a strong antiwar message, as the prize of Liang City becomes less important than the never-ending cycle of fighting. Ge Li comes to rep an almost religious philosophy of selflessness and universal brotherhood that’s despised by both sides, and there’s a bitter irony to the pic’s ending that’s rare in such spectacles.
Though the film’s Ge Li is very different from the original manga’s feral character, Lau, who’s rarely at his best in costume roles, is impressive as the wily strategist. Wang is suitably oily as Lord Liang, and other playing is strong down the line, especially from Korean thesp Choi Si-won as Liang’s son, Ahn as the wise Zhao commander and Fan as the cavalrywoman with the hots for Ge Li.
Visual effects, by H.K.’s Menfond, are so-so; but in a film that’s more about character and wiles, they do the job. Widescreen lensing of Mainland locations by Japan’s Yoshitaka Sakamoto has a suitably dusty flavor, and scoring by currently fashionable Kenji Kawai pumps up the action.
Mandarin dubbing of Ahn and Choi is fine, as is the revoicing of Lau, who’s clearly mouthing Mandarin onscreen.