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Genre: War, Epic, Period Piece
Countries: South Korea, Hong Kong, China, Japan
Language: Mandarin w/ English subtitles, or English dubbing
Starring: Andy Lau, Ahn Sungki, Wang Zhi Wen, Fan Bing Bing, Wu Chi Lung, Choi Siwon
Director: Jacob C.L. Cheung
Run time: 133 minutes
DVD distributor: Alliance Films
DVD extras: Feature commentary by Bey Logan (Hong Kong cinema expert), and the making of Battle of the Warriors.
Even a halfway decent Hong Kong war epic is a pretty darn good movie. And Battle Of The Warriors is a pretty darn good movie. Even though it’s only halfway decent by Hong Kong war epic standards. Andy Lau stars as a wandering warrior from the legendary clan of Mozi warriors who helps a city defend itself against an invading army with vastly superior numbers. The movie is more about strategy than it is about bloodshed and swordplay. More people are killed with arrows than are killed in crazy action scenes, but there is enough great wartime action to satisfy those seeking that kind of thrill. Lau is fantastic, and he brings a serene, stoic screen presence to a role that requires little more than serenity and stoicness. Stoicity. Whatever that word might be.
Ge Li (Lau) arrives in Liang City as the village prepares to surrender to the invading Zhao army. The Zhaos have a massive army, hundreds of thousands strong, and the village has only a few thousand inhabitants to fight them off. When Ge Li arrives, he makes a quick calculation. Liang City is of little strategic importance to the Zhaos, and they are on their way to conquer the Yan State. So all the people of Liang have to do is hold them off for a little while, and make it clear that conquering their small village will come at too great a cost, and the Zhaos will move on and leave them alone. So with Ge Li’s help, they fortify their town and prepare for the onslaught.
The movie is called Battle of the Warriors for the American release, but its international title is more apt - the movie is really called Battle of Wits, and that’s what it is. Ge Li’s strategic planning vs. the military might and cunning of the Zhao commander. This part of the movie is far more cerebral and meticulous than it is action-packed and bloody. The bloodshed certainly arrives, but only after carefully orchestrated plans set it up. This part of the movie is very cool, and I found it riveting, exemplified by the scene where Ge Li sits down with the enemy commander to play a board game, as they feel out each others’ strategic tendencies.
Complicating things are the supporting characters, not all of whom make sense. The king of Liang City is an ineffectual, drunken buffoon, who cares more about staying in power than he does about helping his people. He’s not an unusual character in a war movie. The bumbling, clueless, mean-spirited commander is a pretty standard guy. But Lord Liang (Wang Zhiwen) is more of a cartoon character than anything else. Then there’s his general. He seems to be a cold-blooded opportunist, and he plots to destroy Ge Li when it appears he has become the most powerful and beloved man in the village. He orders the massacre of some captured soldiers, showing his and his evil tendencies. Then, at other points in the film, he appears to be sticking up for Ge Li when the king wants him destroyed. I’m not sure what he’s supposed to be.
The two most interesting characters in the film are the gorgeous Yi Yue (Fan Bingbing), the leader of Liang’s cavalry, who falls in love with Ge Li, and the prince of Liang. The prince is a complex character, who evolves throughout the film. Initially skeptical of the stranger, and resentful that some of his authority has been usurped, he eventually comes around to seeing things Ge Li’s way. Then, in a surprise ending, something…happens…I don’t want to ruin the ending. I hope you’ll watch this movie. It isn’t perfect, and it loses a lot of steam after the big betrayal toward the end, but it’s overall a solid effort. And as I said, a solid Hong Kong war epic effort is a pretty darn good movie.