Battle Of Wits Review
A lot of the recent epics coming from Asia have been about rediscovering heroism and considering what makes someone heroic. In John Woo's Red Cliff, it is both their intelligence and their character that makes his central men so admirable, in Zhang Yimou's Hero, Broken Sword and Jet Li's assassin became heroic because of their mortal sacrifice to the national good, and both of these sets of characters have found themselves defined within the history around them. These have been characters caught in times of warring states and nation building, and it is tempting to see them as offered examples for the modern Chinese people about how they can approach the building of the growing economy and their burgeoning political power - are the values of nationhood about the health and wealth of the many or respect for the rights of the few?
Battle of Wits finds itself in a similar political area, even if it is adapted from a Japanese manga. Set in the warring states period, the small nation of Liang is ruled by a drunken tyrant when his little land finds itself at risk from the expansionist army of Zhao. Should the nation bow down to the stronger power and accept servitude without a damaging war, or should it fight for its own defence and risk massacres and loss of face. With the help of a charismatic strategist from the Mozi people, Liang chooses to resist, and the general of the Zhao forces becomes obsessed with proving his dominance over this novel opponent.
The story considers war and what can really be called a victory in the context of such a circumstance. Is dominance over the enemy the best reason to fight, is it better to destroy those you capture in order to destroy the morale of the other side, and does being under attack allow you the right to unmeasured and disproportionate responses. In short, can you really win if you are made cruel, despotic and vengeful in fighting, and can you hold on to what you want to protect by promoting intolerance and intemperateness whilst destroying mercy and fraternity on the way.
Ge Li, the Mozi played by Andy Lau, is the proper model for virtue here. He is perspicacious, humble, and extremely resourceful. Alongside the drunken king of Liang and his power hungry court, he is a giant as Liang's best hope to survive and their best example to follow as one who wins in war but shows grace and mercy in doing so. In fact, Ge Li is so good at times that you do have to ask whether his halo is on rather too tight.
In essence though, this plays out a little like Yimou's Hero as a cry against conflict and violence except that this film rather wants to have its cake and eat it by showing off these war set pieces for their ferocity and cool action. Of these violent sequences, it must be said that they are mounted very well in an earthy and sometimes cruel fashion. Still, that seems rather misplaced when the emphasis is not on the valour of the sword but on that of the merciful soul.
The length of the film and this central paradox inevitably leads to unevenness in tone. The cartoon like plot dynamics that include an unfathomably gorgeous female guard leader and some very obvious infiltrators are presumably evidence of the film's comic book roots, but when a very earnest message is intended they do undermine dramatic credulity. The eventual romantic sub-plot feels very tacked on and the management of the tension of this sub-plot's conclusion is unintentionally comedic.
Still, this is bloody entertaining and as much as Lau's character lacks proper construction I can watch him in anything and enjoy how subtle his acting can be even if he has had his voice dubbed out as is rumoured. Ge Li may be too good to be true, but Lau convinces as a shrewd tactician and a pure soul. Battle of Wits is a tad too long and clearly not the deep endeavour it may affect to be. It works very well as a fun epic and will please those not looking for anything more heavyweight.
Transfer and Sound
The main transfer is an AVC MPEG-4 encode and carries DTS HD MA and standard stereo options for you to choose between. The master audio track downmixed to a standard DTS 5.1 mix on my system that I have to admit did not impress me greatly. Separation and definition of the individual elements of the soundtrack doesn't seem strong to my ears and overall I felt the audio experience lacked clarity and punch. The effects during the action sequence are mixed across the whole range of speakers with dialogue always coming front on. Basically, I expected this mix to be a little more impressive given the size of the production but do remember I was listening to a downmix. The English subtitles are optional and clear type.
The transfer has a file size of 21.4GB, and is presented at 2.35:1. It is reasonably sharp but I felt it lacked shadow and fine detail, and throughout I found myself struggling with the contrast and brightness especially at night. To my eye, some edge enhancement is noticeable and I would say that the transfer is just above average.
Discs and Special Features
This blu-ray is a BD 25 and region free with standard definition extras which include two trailers and a making of documentary. The trailers are short and sweet with the UK trailer under a minute in length. The documentary is nearly an hour long and is narrated with hushed reverence as interviews with Lau and the director are cut between excerpts of location filming. Cheung talks of the size of the production and the difficulties bringing together such a multinational project, and Lau mentions the differences between the film's casting and the original comic. There is footage of how Lau ended up in a wheelchair during shooting with doing some of his own stunts, and it is very noticeable how aware he is of the camera in supposedly candid moments. Sadly the documentary carries burnt in Chinese subs and is of poorer quality that the main feature.
At certain stores you will find a price difference of pence between this and it's standard definition brother. The HK release may have more extras and better sound options but is unlikely to have the English subs of this release. It's not a perfect transfer at all but it is a very entertaining movie and for those who have gone blu it is the clear choice of UK options.