Battle of the Warriors (2006, Jacob Cheung) also known as A Battle of Wits
It is remarkable how many movies have merged out of Hong Kong and mainland Chinese studios which found inspiration in the most tumultuous periods of the country's own history. The 60s, 70s, 80s, 90s and the 00s have all featured their fair share of sweeping epics (named 'wu xia' films) which attempted to convey China's at times stunningly violent past. The trend in cinema is as follows: the more modern of the films, the more emphasis is put on the action. There are some exceptions of films which, even though they recognize that China's Warring States Period was, for many reasons, an awful era for its senseless violence, they try to espouse something a little bit different. Writer-director Jacob Cheung's Battle of the Warriors, based on a Japanese manga created by Hideki Mori, is in that sense unique.
The story is set around 370 BC. The powerful Zhao state, led by the revered Gang Yanzhong, is advancing its forces across the country to gobble up more land and more cities. Currently standing in their way is a comparatively small city state, that of Liang, who possess, at best, 4000 soldiers to defend their walls, which of course pales in comparison to Yanzhong's legion of 100,000. Liang's King (Wan Zhiwen). Just when the King is about to concede defeat, a lone Mozi (or 'Mohist') figure named Gei Li (Any Lau) approaches the city walls. Liang had in fact called for assistance from the Mozi, but strangely enough their reply comes very late and the form of only one tactician. Gei Li, a strong willed character if there ever was one, convinces the people and remaining Liang soldiers to not give in the the Zhao state, which entails of risk of submission to a potentially evil force and subsequent slavery. What impresses people the most about Gei Li is not the man's skills as a warrior, but rather his cunning as a defensive tactician. On more than one occasion, Gei Li employs strategies which repel the Zhap army. As Gei Li's popularity of among some grows, like Yi Yue (Fan BingBing) who leads to cavalry, other doubt and even fear his unconfirmed true intentions, such as the king who fears for his throne. Gei Li must therefore not only counter-balance forces from outside the Liang city walls, but save his own skin from his colleagues in arms.
Jacob Cheung's Battle of the Warriors is a terrific accomplishment. Its success is felt on numerous levels, from the technical merits, to the story and even its theme. It is an example of a war film that does try to play its cards different, even though said cards are quite familiar. How often have viewers seen films about warring states, in which one side was at a considerable disadvantage and had to make do with the best they had in order to survive? Battle of the Warriors uses that as its canvas to then tell a very unexpected tale which has the viewer question which side is actually the right side, not to mention hit home a rather solid ant-war message.
At the outset of the film, the viewer assumes, rightfully so, that it is the Zhao army which shall fill the role of antagonist in the picture. This is a logical conclusion to jump to given that they are the 'invading' side, which typically denotes villainy in such films anyhow. Coupled with that is the reality that the film's hero, Gei Li, works for them in a desperate attempt to preserve the sovereignty of this tiny estate. Director Cheung pulls a fast one on the audience about halfway into the picture by having the more powerful heads in the Liang city bureaucracy turn their backs on Gei Li out of fear that that Mozi may overtake a position of leadership. Not only that, but the film develops the character of the King in such a way that one begins to view him as worse than Yanzhong, which upon initial reflection seems preposterous given how it is the latter who performs the invasion, not the other way around. This speaks one of the movie's complex themes about war and what it does to a person. For Yanzhong, winning equates to surviving and vice versa. If he loses,then there is no point in living, simple as that. Pride has taken over as the dominating philosophy in the case of that character, whereas for the Liang king, just staying in power is what matters, and this actually ends up bringing worse behaviour in his case. It is an interesting plot device which not many will see coming in the early stages of the picture.
Of course, the character of Gei Li himself plays a tremendous role in developing the ambiguity which pervades the story. It is somewhat ironic that just as the king has signed a decree explaining that Liang wishes to surrender and, hence, stop the fighting, Gei Li arrives with the full intention of pursuing the battle. Once again, the viewer's initial impression of a character does not hold up for the entire duration of the movie. Of all the individuals in the mist of the gigantic tug of war, Gei Li is the most complex. He is defending the city for the people, first and foremost, not to satisfy and blood lust. His tactics are far more defensive than they are offensive too (although that might be a product of the circumstances which see his side vastly outnumbered by the enemy), meaning that his creativity in battle must always serve the purpose saving people more so than killing people, even though the latter will happen regardless. As the story evolves, it becomes increasingly clear that Gei Li is not terribly enthusiastic about war, he just happens to be especially good at partaking in it. If things could be changed to the point where war was avoided without the possibility of dire repercussions felt on one side or the other, that would be bliss. The situation being what it is, he does what he must, but would rather not have to do any of it at all.
It is actually quite fascinating to learn that the alternate title for the film is A Battle of Wits. It seems as if that title suits the picture much more. The protagonist does in fact employ a tremendous about of cunning, intelligence and wit to accomplish his mission of defending Liang. The tactics employed to stave off the Zhao army are very impressive for their unexpected ingenuity. It is not just a matter of lining soldiers and archers up, delivering a rousing speech and sending them off their deaths. The creativity involved in executing the defense mechanism is amazing at times. There is also the added factor that on the few occasions that Gei Li and Yanzhong confront each other, the resulting sequence is never testosterone filled. Rather, they do make battle with the intelligence and with words.
All in all, Battle of the Warriors rises well above the average historical war epic film. Andy Lau delivers a strong performance (par for the course, really). The action scenes consistently reserve some surprises for the viewer and, finally, the overall story is much more ambiguous in nature than what typically comes out of Chinese productions.
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