About half way through Battle of Wits I put the movie on pause, tottered over to the kitchen, put on the kettle and idly set my thoughts to punning on the title. (For the record, I came up with Rattle of Zits, Cattle of Nits, and Tattle of Gits. Nervously Noel Coward brilliance, I do not think …) Cup of tea in hand, I sat outside on the balcony and read for a while.
You get the gist, dear reader: this film was not engaging. Which is such a shame, because I really, really wanted to like this, keen sword and sandal buff that I am.
There is a school of thought that says that, post Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, the West is hungry for big budget, historic epics from Asia, full of sweeping plains, battles, romance, betrayal and honour. Of course, there have been such epics produced in Asia for years past counting, but it’s true that movies like House of Flying Daggers are ravishingly gorgeous films that appear to be aimed precisely at such a market. And me, I am a fully paid up member of that very market: love epic genres, me; theoretically anyway.
And Battle of Wits seems to both fit this trend and buck it a little, which, on paper, sounds intriguing and ripe for exploration. Based on the manga by Ken’ichi Sakema, the film is set in the ever-popular Warring States period of China’s history. It’s a fertile period for movies and battle … and attempts to set itself apart by stamping a large degree of authenticity in its plot and scenery.
But its ‘authenticity’ is in no way intriguing, just an elongated cinematic vision of dust and dreariness. All very ‘beige’, if you know what I mean.
Meanwhile Andy Lau is a little grittier and low-key than normal in this film, coming across a little like Alec Guinness playing Obi-Wan: which means that his character is our channel into the movie’s moral message, a rather earnest, anti-war subtext. Lau’s character, Ge Li, is from the Mo-Tsu tribe and follows Mohism, a humanist, universal love religion. So of course he is precisely the sort of person you would expect to be sent as a military tactician to help the beleaguered citizens of Liang sort out and tough up their enemies, right?
Well, cue all sorts of moral quandaries. Which is all fine and dandy but the endless parade of ambiguity in this film gets a little wearing. Everyone is all light and shade, and the end result is that Battle of Wits comes across as heavy handed and confused.
Such faults might be overlooked if other facets of the film stepped up to the plate. The film eschews any of the high flying acrobatics of Zhang Yimou’s films, but the attempts at gritty battle scenes are pretty darn unexciting, without any hint that these battles are supposed to underline the message of war as hellish, tedious and generally rubbish. So they just come across as poorly handled, shot and edited.
There is a romantic sub-plot, which really does not light up the screen or further the plot all that much, and much of the supporting cast is pretty blah too, except for the Zhou general, Xiang Yanzhang (Ahn Sung-Ki) who makes the most of a short-changed character.
Films about honour in war can be stirring and moving. Films exploring authenticity in history can harness this historical accuracy engagingly – ‘wow! So that is what is was like! Gosh and golly!’ Battle of Wits unfortunately, heart in the right place and all, just doesn’t cut it.