Battle of Wits or Muk gong or 墨攻 or Battle of the Warriors (2006)
Originally titled Battle of Wits or Muk gong or 墨攻 (2006) by the Hong Kong studios, this was later retitled for distribution in the West as Battle of the Warriors. The screenplay by director Chi Leung ‘Jacob’ Cheung is an adaptation of a historical novel called “Bokko” (aka “Bokkou”) by Hideki Mori. This was followed by a Japanese manga of the same name by Ken’ichi Sakemi. Both draw on historical accounts of China’s Warring States Period. Putting the question of the contemporary source material behind us, we’re into the period of conflict around 370 BC when the seven competing Kingdoms then making up most of what we now know as China fought over the right to rule. In this case, we’re able to see a major expansionist move by the Zhao army against the Yans. However, the advancing army has the same problem the Mexicans had with the Alamo. Their supply route lies through the small Liang kingdom. If this small military threat is ignored, it could attack the supply route at a critical time and disrupt the Zhao advance. The Zhao Commander Xiang Yan-zhong (veteran Korean actor Ahn Sung-kee) understands his invading army must take the Liang capital and remove all threats.
When he hears of the Zhao preparations for war, the initial reaction of the King of Liang (Wang Zhiwen) is to send for help to the followers of Mozi, a Chinese philosopher. The Mohists believed in universal love and pacifism but were famous for their ability to defend cities against siege attacks. This belief system is not an early version of flower power, but rather a forerunner of socialism in which each individual was considered of equal value and to be treated with respect. This was the complete opposite of the usual power structures favoured by the Kingships. Instead of simple-minded oppression, the people were to be given the benefit of altruism and selflessness. In a revolutionary attack on the usual mechanisms of wealth, money was to be abandoned and gifts avoided. Status and formalities should be ignored and general selfishness condemned wherever possible. It’s surprising such a humanist philosophy should emerge at the same time as Confucianism and Taoism.
When there’s no apparent reaction from the Mohists, the King sends envoys to surrender. They are all killed and the advance continues. As the Zhao army arrives outside the city walls, a lone figure knocks on the gates, announcing himself as Ge Li – a Mohist (Andy Lau). As a political decision, the King surrenders control of the defence to this man but immediately sees problems as Ge Li appoints Zituan (Nicky Wu) as commander of the archers. This is a decision based on competence and not status in the line of command which should have dictated the choice of Prince Liang Shi (Si-won Choi). Disrupting the usual social order sets a bad precedent. Worse, Ge Li speaks directly to the people and gets them to co-operate in rebuilding the internal defences of the city. Thanks to their hard work and the inspiration of Liang Cavalry Chief Yi Yue (Bingbing Fan), the city is able to withstand a full scale attack.
This is a wonderful two-thirds of a film as the worthless King of Liang and his court twist and turn to find the best way to save themselves while Ge Li devises a comprehensive defensive strategy with the Prince and the Cavalry Chief becoming willing followers. It’s also interesting to see the immediate respect between Ge Li and the Zhao Commander Xiang Yan-zhong. They recognise each other as equals and are prepared to conduct a military engagement respecting human life whenever possible. Although they do not share the same Mohist ideology, they are practical men who see the reality in the Liang Kingship and wish they could be elsewhere and pass it by. All this makes the film so much more interesting than the usual military spectacular. That Ge Li gets the common people to fight in their own defence and protects the enemy troops wherever possible endears him to both sides. Unfortunately, the King of Liang sees Ge Li as a dangerous revolutionary, pushing him aside and ordering the execution of the the Zhao troops who have surrendered. This is rank foolishness because it enrages the Zhao. Whereas they might have retreated, now they are determined to tear down the city, no matter what the cost.
As a military spectacle, there are some rather beautifully choreographed scenes where large troop movements are seen around the besieged city with some equally brutal moments as the fight moves inside the city. Until we arrive in the final reel, I’ve a clear sense of realism from these military manoeuvres. Unfortunately, realism is then cast aside for the final assault on the city. The small Zhao unit remains hidden in the surrounding forest with no obvious way of putting an assault together let alone feeding the troops and keeping them warm at night without the ability to light a fire. For us then to see hot air balloons carrying commandos over the wall is just absurd. It’s as if the Montgolfier Brothers were suddenly transported from the eighteenth century to mount a special forces assault. I’m just about prepared to accept the flooding of the city with the water pressure able to lift soldiers into the air as the water rushes through the tunnels and bursting up into the main courtyard. But how did our digger (singular) manage to construct the link to the lake in such a short time? It’s another complete absurdity. The final scenes of Andy Lau searching for Bingbing Fan in the prison cells as they flood is hopelessly overdone melodrama.
Despite these deficiencies at the end, I’m still prepared to recommend Battle of Wits or Muk gong or 墨攻. There’s an underlying consistency of character in the key players that produces the final tragic outcomes. Call it fate or predestination, the fact that everyone loses something of value is inevitable once the basic situation becomes clear.