Tuesday, March 6, 2012
From the Rental Vault (2006): A Battle of Wits
One of those eras is called the Warring States Period, in which smaller states were gradually absorbed by larger ones. By about 550 BC there were four major powers (Qi, Qin, Wei and Chu), some semi-major powers and some small states that survived by being too small to be worth conquering or by playing one larger power off another. These spend the next couple of centuries skirmishing across their borders. A Battle of Wits (also called Battle of Warriors) is set in that time frame, around 370 BC. The formerly minor state of Zhao has gained power and territory from its weaker neighbors and is on a path to challenge rival Qin. As part of that path, Zhao forces plan to besiege and conquer the small independent city of Liang. Liang's king is making ready to surrender, as the request he sent for "Mozi warriors" to help defend the city seems to have been ignored. In actual history, these Mozi warriors would have been siege engineers who followed the Mohist philosophy's embrace of math and physical sciences, allowing them to help cities construct formidable defenses.
Before the king can surrender, a single Mozi arrives -- Ge Li -- and he stirs the people of Liang to try to fight off the Zhao army. They do, and using Ge Li's Mohist knowledge of tactics and defensive formations, repulse a Zhao attack. Ge Li makes friends of Yinyue, the female calvary commander, as well as, eventually, the prince of Liang. But the king has become jealous of Ge Li's popularity and worries he will have to do something if he wants to keep his throne once the Zhao are finally thrown back for good.
Battle is based on a Japanese comic book series that is itself based on an historical novel by Ken'ichi Sakemi. Whether the source material is any good I have no idea, but if they are director/writer Jacob Cheung has made good material a brutal and more than faintly ugly mess. Much of the movie involves Ge Li relating the "impartial love" guiding rule of his Mohist philosophy and his agony over the many deaths the battle causes, but considering that Liang chose to resist Zhao at his urging, it sounds kind of hollow. Understanding that the Mohist idea was outside mainstream Chinese thought can help make some sense of these scenes, but that's not adequately explained in the movie. Veteran Hong Kong actor Andy Lau decides, for some reason, to play nearly the entire movie without changing expressions, meaning it's next to impossible to believe he has all that much invested in anything going on around him. Fan Bingbing is adequately earnest as Yinyue, but she has too little to do too much of the time.
The actual city-state of Liang was eventually conquered not by the Zhao, but by the major state of Qin, which would ultimately unite most of what we think of as China under the first imperial Chinese dynasty, the Qin Dynasty. The dominant legalist strain of philosophy accepted by the Qin would mostly erase Mohism, meaning that most of the political Mohist work -- helping cities defeat attackers -- as well as its philosophy would turn out to have little lasting impact. Much like A Battle of Wits, although the philosophy probably leaves a lot less of a bad aftertaste.