Wednesday, 22 November 2006

Battle of Wits, A 墨攻 (2006)

And World Peace!

If you had a classical education, you wouldn’t have heard of the Mohists. Your Chinese teachers – if they had known about the school of philosophy dating from the Warring States period of Chinese history – would never had told you about them, since they were the major opponents of the Confucian scholars. With traditional Chinese teachers who believe that being Chinese is the same as being a Confucian, there’s no way of learning about this brilliant group of philosophers, engineers, and military strategists who had a radically different idea of morality and ethics than the ritual-obsessed and authoritarian Confucians.

Bluntly put, the Mohists were a bunch of ascetic hippies who believed in universal love and world peace, came from the wrong side of the social ladder, and employed their engineering skills (they worked for a living, as opposed to the Confucian gentlemen, who were palace courtiers and aristocratic stock) for the defense of nations. Infuriatingly, they were the only Chinese school of thought interested in the theory of science, analogical reasoning, and justified everything through "the greater good". But it might be unrealistic to be the Pacifist Party in the era of unceasing war, and no way your philosophy will survive when only one state remains. It’s nice to think of how radically different Chinese society would be if the Mohists succeeded in defending every kingdom and made war unprofitable – the map of China would resemble that of Europe, and we’d all be flaky hippies instead of traditionalists, and certain Big Men of Asia would run out of excuses for demanding the unquestioning obedience of their citizens.

Not counting the accidental copying of the entire Mohist canon into the Daoist texts, which saved Mohist ideas from extinction after Confucianism was adopted as the state religion upon the foundation of the Han dynasty, the best thing that anyone has done for the Mohists has to be the Mozi Attacks manga by Hideki Mori. It’s a purely fictional account of how a single Mohist military strategist saves the minnow city-state of Liang from becoming an appetiser for the zillion-strong Zhao army on route to conquering its weak rival of Yan. The manga served as an introduction to Mohist philosophy, authentic warfare for the period, as well as focusing on the convoluted military battle of wits between the hero and the Zhao general and how war-time conditions and human behaviour in the besieged Liang city raises questions in the hero about the viability of his beliefs. Any movie based on Mozi Attacks would be a shoo-in for Best Credible Chinese Period Epic Ever.

And then, there’s A Battle of Wits. Even before you watch it, the fact that it is a China-Japan-Korea joint production should signal some unease. Joint, cross national productions tend to raise much more money to fund a film, but they often come with other strings attached, such as the dubious casting of young and popular but incompetent stars and ex-teen idols (Nicholas Tse in The Promise!), and very badly and inconsitently rendered Mandarin pronunciation. A Battle of Wits has dreadful casting, beginning with Taiwanese pretty boy and ex-teen idol Nicky Wu as a captain of the archers, pretty boy and ex-teen idol. He’s solely in the film because the producers wanted a Legolas moment. There’s the Korean pretty boy and ex-teen idol Choi Si-won, who should fit into the role of a pampered and petulant prince, but lacks any emotional range to convince audiences of his turn mid-way into the movie. There’s Chinese pretty girl Fang Bingbing, who because of her vapidness and naif-like beauty, is utterly unconvincing as a female captain of the cavalry, and despite her vapidness and naif-like beauty, is still unconvincing when Jacob Cheung’s script inevitably turns her into the Mohist strategist Ge Li’s love interest. Yes, Andy Lau may be lean and grizzled enough in this movie to pull off a warrior-philosopher, the presence of Korean legend Ahn Sung-kee is a casting coup for the opposing general, while the Duke of Liang is competently portrayed as an incompetent opportunist by Wang Zhiwen – but the damage is already done. When the casting is good, it is inspired, but when the casting is bad, it is really bad – and both occur in equal amounts for this movie.

Plot-wise, the original material by Hideki Mori prevents the movie from going too far astray, and Jacob Cheung should be commended for toning down the manga-ish humour from the comic book. However some liberties, when taken, cause the plot to suffer. Witness the tragedy of casting Fang Bingbing and the entire romantic subplot, then imagine how much worse it gets when an African slave (no doubt played by a tall Chinese man in blackface) pops up out of nowhere in 300 BC China. It gets slightly more ridiculous when after a long series of military strategems and counter-strategems by Ge Li and the Zhao general, the movie relies on a deus ex machina (an aerial invasion!) to end the battle decisively. For a movie with a Mohist strategist, there is surprisingly very little meaningful discussion about the philosophy or how it actually led to the school’s expertise in defensive warfare. There is very little development on the expected political and philosophical tensions between the strategist and the Confucian courtiers as well – making this film a let-down intellectually.

Yet this is nothing compared to the fact that the battle scenes are done horribly, with poor production value. There’s a battlefield panorama that looks as if it were generated using Rome: Total War, a very old computer game; and many scenes involving soldiers and horses on fire look badly acted, and badly CGIed. Composition-wise, Jacob Cheung directs his battle scenes in a static way, with the camera missing out most of the upfront action, the dynamism of the fighting, and even makes the mistake of presenting the key final battles as a montage of still frames dissolving into a pretty but inappropriate oil painting. This film makes the battle scenes in Kingdom of Heaven look masterly, and makes Troy look like a good war epic. Poor cutting creates very flawed misc en scenes that any well-trained first year film student would actually try to avoid, culminating in a sequence where two scouts are spotted by the Zhao camp at night, and are pursued immediately in the forest in broad noon daylight.

With a staggering budget of 15 million dollars, Jacob Cheung proves that the best source material cannot guarantee a perfect period epic. A Battle of Wits starts from a promising premise, but ends up tripping itself due to uneven execution. Because the film is really good when it gets things right, and really bad when it gets things wrong, I cannot recommend or disapprove of this film. Nevertheless, people should still watch it, just to get an idea of how diverse Chinese philosophy was before the Confucians came and imposed their 2000 year (and still counting!) reign on Chinese thought.

First published at incinemas on 23 November 2006

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