It's not everyday that a seemingly generic movie serves up surprises of the immense strength seen here. Although the word immense may carry subjective undertones to each and every movie watcher, getting a powerful anti-war and humanist message thrown into the mix can never be a bad thing. And while certainly not ground breaking in any shape or form and riddled with shocking oversights totally out place in a professional production, A Battle of Wits (ABOW) makes good on its promise in a manner sadly absent from many a supposedly superior project.
Once more we're subjected to the oft reused premise of second century China where the seven kingdoms are in an Orwelian state of perpetual war, a condition ABOW at least delivers in a more historically-authoritative fashion. None of that make-believe fictional nonsense suffices, we get names and places that nominally come straight from the history books. At the core of proceedings lies city-state Liang, besieged by the vastly more numerous armies of Zhao. Liang's rather uncaring ruler (Wang Zhiwen who was also in Together) summons for help from legendary warrior-tactician clan Mozi, but only one man turns up: the lone, enigmatic negotiator-style wanderer Ge Li, constantly referred to in the film as Mr. Ge Li for a more meaningful reason than ostensibly presented.
Done by Andy Lau in a somewhat low-profile role for the superstar, Ge Li brings to the fore the usual unwilling class and prime values so essential in a valiant protagonist. The catch here is that for all his conquering charm and military prowess, Ge Li doesn't believe in violence and espouses universal love. He also never really hurts anyone on screen, and manages great victories with the least carnage possible, accepting the necessity of violence with the utmost pain.
Ge Li gathers Liang's resources as the city becomes encircled by the more traditionally-militant Zhao forces. There's quite a few skirmishes and battles with the movie pacing itself nicely, alternating between philosophical ponderings and action as needed. The antagonists are marshalled by General Xiang Yan Zhong, played by excellent Ahn Sung-kee, who provides a link between ABOW and one of its main inspirations, Musa, where Ahn did the skilled Korean archer Jin.
Another element thrown in for good measure revolves around the fledgling love affair between Ge Li and cavalry captain Yi Yue (Fan Bingbing). However, do not worry about getting this epic spoiled by saccharine distractions. ABOW doesn't hold back the tragic contingent, with one heart-wrenching calamity close on the heels of its predecessor. Sooner or later, a sobering reminder yanks events back to the harsh light of reality, no matter how promisingly ideal.
Throughout the respectable running time available, maneuvering and scheming supplement ferocious combat, but none of it comes across gratuitous. While you sit there enjoying the clever writing and constant surprises, the story moves along beautifully, purveying the deepest, most profound human content seen in this genre, possibly ever. None of the usual bravado and camera-pleasing antics transpire, ABOW shying from pyrotechnics and wire-works to concentrate on a memorable message regarding the horrors of warfare and the fallibility of humanity.
And the grace with which this is conducted must be cherished. Characters steer clear of preachy sermonizing, instead delivering their heart-breaking anguish through organic narrative and fitting context.
But every character has ambiguity written all over it, from Ge Li as undecided about his role and identity, the Liang monarch who's as cruel and bent as can be despite professing love for his people, to the contemplative Zhao general and hapless commoners, this flick has them all.
It does feel a tad rushed in certain places, some scenes obviously cut short, mayhap to avoid a more restrictive rating due to violent content that was left out by ruthless editors. Still, this doesn't detract from enjoying ABOW's deep moral repercussions and excellent story.
What do stand out as sore spots are occasionally ridiculous visual effects and sheer amateurish performances, such as Fan Bingbing opening her eyes a split second after her character was supposed to close them once and for all. Also, some of the action suffers from over-direction, looking like laughable dance choreography with soldiers stumbling around in an exaggerated manner. Additionally, the voice track was clearly dubbed without any effort to mask the discord inevitable when doing this, resulting in awkward spoken material. This isn't helped much by the almost complete absence of a proper soundtrack.
Avoid thinking these serious pitfalls. With every single participant in the story completely convincing and multi-dimensional, ABOW scores a huge win for a relatively underdoggish release, and none of its minor failings diminish that. Whatever's broken with the movie on hand is more than made up for by its realistic impact, and thirty minutes in you'll be right at home in Liang, oriented to feel it as a real place confronting concrete terror and hope.
Make tracks to the nearest venue showcasing this milestone and see what happens when Hero meets Platoon or Full Metal Jacket. A Battle of Wits is that significant, albeit most likely it will go down in history just as misunderstood as the pan-human principles it seeks to imbue for the benefit of us all.
Rating: * * * * 1/2
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