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January 16, 2007

A Battle of Wits


Muk Gong
Jacob Chueng Chi Leung - 2006
Huayi Brothers Region 0 DVD

Just a week or so after it came and went in its Chiang Mai run, I was able to purchase A Battle of Wits on DVD. There will be other DVD versions that will have bigger, more readable English subtitles than the version available from my local street vendor, and it is a film that ideally should be seen on as large as screen as possible. The film is full of great battle set pieces that fully use the wide screen, and make use of the desert and mountain locations.

Taking place approximately 370 B.C. in China, the story is about a lone warrior, Ge Li, who shows up to help one of the warring kingdoms. Ge Li uses strategy that keeps the kingdom from being defeated in battle, and minimizes the casualties on both sides. The lord who benefits from having his kingdom saved allows his pride to take over, jealous over the Ge Li's popularity. The lord is also distrustful of Ge Li's humanity. In one key scene, enemy soldiers are killed once they are captured, in disregard of Ge Li's orders. One scene that has an unintended echo with current events shows Ge Li in conversation with an enemy general. The general wants to go to battle in the name of his 5000 soldiers who have been killed. Ge Li emphasises an life with honor over an ultimately meaningless death.

This is only the secong film I have seen by Jacob Cheung. Previously I had seen Midnight Fly, an intimate drama starring Anita Mui that had a storyline that follows an unexpected path. A Battle of Wits is based on narratives established by a Japanese manga which in turn inspired a novel. Cheung is as interested in the smaller moments as he is in staging battle scenes with hundreds of archers, and soldiers in low-flying balloons. Some of the best moments in the film involve the interplay between Andy Lau as the always forthright Ge Li, and Fan Bingbing as the female cavalry officer who pursues him. The French title of the manga, which translates as "Strategy" would more inclusively describe the activity in the film, ranging from the planning and execution of military battles, the personal philosophical discussions, and the internecine fueds.

Andy Lau has been developing nicely from matinee idol to character actor, and as ably stepped into the kind of role that Leslie Cheung might have taken in the past. What makes A Battle of Wits more interesting than some of the Chinese epics that have been more visible for Western audiences is that Jacob Cheung is more interested in the relationships between his characters than in any displays of technique. There are no martial arts acrobatics, nor any obvious displays of CGI technology. Instead, there is an emphasis on the physical, emotional and moral toll of war. More than dramatizing the oft-stated, "Pride comes before the fall", Cheung shows the confused loyalties of generals and slaves, royalty and serfs. The story, about recognizing the humanity in others, especially those designated as enemies, may seem like a cliche. The obvious similarities between what occurred in China over two thousand years ago, and the events currently in Iraq make A Battle of Wits worth seeking out. Even without those similarities, A Battle of Wits announces that Jacob Cheung has been more than ready to be recognized as one of Hong Kong's more talented filmmakers.

Posted by peter at January 16, 2007 02:28 AM