The last week of the Asian Film Festival included two high-profile, big-budget films, Battle of Wits from Hong Kong and Tazza: The High Rollers from Korea.
Battle of Wits is a military epic set in 370 BCE, and although the production values are high I'm sure the budget was a fraction of what was spent on something like Hero. There is an invading army of 100,000 Zhao warriors, most of whom I assume are CGI, but nobody flies in this film, and when the showers of arrows descend of the defenders of the small city of Liang, there is no martial arts miracle man to dodge each and everyone. They tend to find targets.
The city of Liang has the misfortune of being in the path of the Zhao army who is after bigger game to the South. Liang, its drunken king, and his craven advisors are ready to surrender, but other citizens have sent to the Mo-Tsu warriors for support. They expect a respectable contingent from these masters of military strategy, but instead they get the sole warrior Ge Li. Since he played by Andy Lau, somehow you know he will get the job done.
My knowledge of 3rd century BCE Chinese history is a little sketchy, but the films plays out on a much more realistic level than its flashier counterparts. The Mo-Tse warriors were practitioniers of Mohism and Battle of Wits is as much about strategy as fighting, although the battle scenes are all you could ask for. It is also about betrayal and friendship and family loyalty – in other words all the pieces are in place. It works well for its two plus hours, and Andy Lau gives a dignified performance as Ge Li. You also have to remember that Lau is a huge pop singer in Hong Kong known for roles in Johnny To's glossy crime movies. (Here he is in a duet with Kenny G.) So this role is something of a low-key departure for him, and he gets to show his age – which by the way is only forty something and he looks really good.
Tazza is the kind of movie that gives glitz a good name, and it was a perfect choice for the festival's final night. Goni is a small time gambler who loses both his own savings and his sister's alimony in a crooked card game. For the next two and half hours he tracks those who cheated him until through a series of mentors and one spectacular femme fatale he finds himself a true tazza in the high-stakes world of the Korean underground gambling scene. Tazza is fast, funny, and violent. A good rule of thumb if you ever consider joining in on a hwatu game while in Korea: back away if some one has stashed a sledgehammer in the corner of the room.