A Battle of Wits

One might hastily assume that this latest big budget martial arts film is attempting to cash in on the international success of the recent spate of lush wuxia epics such as "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon", "Hero", "The Banquet" and "House of Flying Daggers", but it interestingly differs from those films in ways that may lesson its international appeal but broaden its local audience. Most amazingly of course is that it has the audacity not to star Zhang Ziyi! Whether she was too busy, too expensive, too big or simply not asked is unknown, but instead the film relies on the star power of Andy Lau - who is the biggest box office draw in China and Hong Kong but almost completely unknown in the West. Other than the Zhang Ziyi factor the film also goes off in a different direction by eschewing the glamorous lavish look and fashions of those films for a much more realistic setting of a dusty rock hewn fortress and utilitarian clothing. In the action scenes it too goes more for gritty realism rather than relying on graceful wire enhanced fights, balletic one on one combats and special effects. In other words this is not a pretty film, but one that feels much more grounded in historical veracity. The term "epic" is applied primarily for the large scale battle scenes with thousands of arrows flying and men charging and dying in vast heaps of corpses.

Jacob Cheung feels like an odd choice to direct such a large film with the vast logistical planning needed and the ability to show the large action set pieces in a way that makes sense to the audience. His previous films have primarily all been very small intimate dramas of which a number have received some acclaim - "Cageman" (1992), "Intimates" (1997), "The Kid" (1999) and "Midnight Fly" (2001) - so what drove the decision of the producers to chose Cheung is rather a mystery - but on the other hand who would have thought Ang Lee, Xiaogang Feng, Zhang Yimou and Chen Kaige had the makings of being wuxia directors in them (o.k. it is still open to debate whether Chen Kaige ("The Promise") has the makings of this or not!). Therefore what is so surprising about this film is that though the action is generally very solid (helped no doubt by the skills of veteran choreographer Stephen Tung Wai), the dramatic elements of the film are sadly lacking in emotional resonance. You never really care about any of the characters or what happens to them because they are either cardboard cutouts, not particularly interesting or simply not at all likable. Complicated relationships are what Cheung has always based his stories on but here there is no time to develop them in a meaningful way and the one serious attempt to do so in a romance of sorts flounders like a dying fish on the shore.

The film is set in the historical period of the Warring Kingdoms (5th century BC to 221 BC) in which a number of states were in a constant struggle for power against one another. This was finally brought to an end when the Qin Dynasty defeated them all and unified China (the setting for "Hero"). The Liang army of 4,000 men is beseiged behind the walls of their fortress facing the 100,000 man army of Zhao and time is quickly running out. They have sent for the help of the Moxian clan - a fascinating school who devoted themselves to philosophy and military strategy based on the teachings of Mozi. They were experts on fortification and would assist any kingdom that was being invaded as a means of bringing peace to the land - in a sense pacifist warrior philosophers. Only one shows up - Ge Li (Andy Lau) - and he immediately shores up their defenses and waits for the attack. On the other side is Xiang Yan-zhong, the commander of the Zhao force (portrayed by Korean legend Ahn Sung-ki - no doubt in an attempt to bolster the Korean box office as is the inclusion of another Korean actor, Choi Si-won who plays the son of the Liang Emperor), a forceful personality who becomes obsessed with defeating this runt of a kingdom as all of his various attacks are stymied by the Mozi defenses - thus turning the fight as much into a battle of wits as one of blood and courage.

Two main factors cause the film to stumble badly at times - the most glaring being a forced romance between Ge Li and the female cavalry commander Yi Yue (Fan Bingbing). This was injected into the film apparently over Andy's objection and is not a part of the Japanese manga upon which the film is based. Audiences want romance was the thinking, but it makes no sense in this situation and brings the proceedings to a dead halt whenever it pops its ugly head up. Even more objectionable is that the character of the woman begins as a tough cavalry officer but one look at Gi Li's manly stature (and very modern haircut) and she quickly turns into this helpless, swooning babe dressed in silk desperately trying to seduce Andy. It sets Hong Kong film feminism back a hundred years.

The other issue is more one of choice - Andy plays his character in such a stern faced, humourlessly one note performance that it is impossible to see him as human - he is more a burning symbol of philosophical thought and noble behaviour than flesh and blood. If Gi Li was alive today he would be a GQ model, the Governor of California, head the United Nations and in the running for the Nobel Peace Prize for bringing harmony to Iraq (because only Gi Li has a chance of doing that). Angelina Jolie would be knocking on his door asking for a blessing and a little nookie. Gi Li would of course skip the nookie. Thus you never warm up to him and without him being an object to root for there is no one else to turn to in this film because almost everyone else in the film - high and low in status - are treacherous (including the Liangs) or irritating (Yi Yue). Only the honorable Liang archer commander played by Nicky Wu intrigues but his character is never fleshed out.

In the end the film is one that you wish you could have liked more for its fascinating historical context and the enjoyable large realistic action set pieces but it never really connects on an emotional level - primarily only on a visual one.

A small pleasure for Hong Kong fans is the inclusion of Wu Ma as the conniving advisor to the Liang Emperor played by Wang Zhiwen.

My rating for this film: 6.0

From the Photo Book

To read more about Mozi, check out this link to Wikipedia: