In 370 B.C. China remains separated as seven nations and handful of smaller tribes, one of these being the city state of Liang. The city is besieged by the mighty nation of Zhao, led by fearsome General Xiang Yangzhong (Ahn Sung Ki), so ministers working for the cold, uncaring King of Liang (Wang Zhiwen) request help from the Mozi tribe, renowned for their defensive tactics. A lone warrior named Ge Li (Andy Lau) arrives and astounds everyone by being a committed pacifist. He defends the city, pulling off great victories with the fewest casualties possible, and wins respect from the Prince of Liang (Nicky Wu) and the heart of female cavalry commander Yi Yue (Fan Bing Bing). Yet even victory brings fear, suspicion and mistrust among the people. Disillusioned with war, Ge Li seeks a way to spread his message of peace, while the jealous King plots to have him killed.
Although afflicted by a few muddled subplots and sketchily developed supporting characters, with Fan Bing Bing uncharacteristically weak as Yi Yue, this nonetheless emerges as an affecting, thought provoking historical epic, greatly ennobled by the nuanced, sensitive playing of Andy Lau. Based on a manga by Hideki Mori, A Clash of Ideologies might have been a more apt title, since heart of the story is Ge Li’s attempt to convince those around him that war is a fundamentally pointless, wasteful enterprise. For all his military prowess, he despises violence and espouses universal love, but writer-director Jacob Cheung understands such idealism is heart-wrenchingly difficult to make a reality.
Perhaps more than any other Chinese historical epic, this movie highlights the ugly truths of war: peasants pee themselves in fright; a terrified father smothers his own crying child; bodies pile up everywhere; swaggering generals would rather kill their own men than admit defeat; a child is unmasked as a traitor and beaten to death. One woman sums up the peasants’ dilemma: “Why don’t we just give them the city? Who cares who we pay our taxes to?” Caught between the posturing idiocy of generals and kings, and a peasantry with their morals slowly eroded by the need to survive, Ge Li tries to be a guiding light. Refreshingly he’s no suffering martyr. Pragmatic in that he wields violence when necessary (although he kills no-one himself), he is still humane enough to lament its use. His is a hard-won pacifism, but while we recognise his questioning of what is right and wrong makes him a great hero, the tragedy here is how others perceive it as moral weakness.
The film is well paced, alternating from philosophical musings to hard-hitting action. A few computer generated armies are less forgivable than those in a fantasy epic, but the large scale battles are well realized and naturalistic without excessive gore or shaky-cam. Cheung wrings nail-biting tension out a race to save one character from a watery death and pulls off some memorable set-pieces involving an enemy balloon invasion and Ge Li’s ingenious counterattack. Among the supporting cast, veteran Wu Ma appears as a duplicitous minister and Ahn Sung Ki excels as General Yangzhong; a man driven to prove idealism gets you nowhere, just as Ge Li must prove that in war everybody loses. His triumph lies in an ability to inspire individual heroism, in foot soldiers, peasants and children, something Cheung highlights in an almost-painfully moving finale, somewhat akin to Roland Joffe’s The Mission (1986). Features a beautiful score by Kenji Kawai.