The Chinese are good at spectacle and although writer/director Jacob Cheung from Hong Kong is used to smaller, more completive pieces, he does a terrific job with this adaptation of Ken'ichi Sakemi’s iconic Japanese manga, avoiding the obvious comic book excesses in favour of character development and a Buddhist message of restraint. The title, as translated into English, suggests a game of chess, which, to say the least, is misleading.

The year is 370 BC. The nation we know today as a communist powerhouse is like Scotland, only bigger, a country of warring clans. Liang doesn’t rate highly in the big league, despite a royal heritage and a fortified city stronghold. The superior Zhao tribe, with over 100,000 soldiers under arms is a Goliath by comparison and they are on the march, not against Liang, but their more formidable next door neighbours. In order to wage war, they have to take Liang’s citadel because it is in the way, a mere formality in the scheme of things, since the invaders outnumber the defenders 100-to-one.

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At the moment when the king is about to capitulate, without an arrow being fired, a small, stocky man, called Ge Li (Andy Lau), enters the city and announces that he can save them from their fate.

“What cities have you protected before?” the king’s son asks?

“This is my first,” Ge Li replies.

He is a member of the Mo-Tso tribe, known as aesthetes and warriors, who refuse gifts or rewards and live lives of dedicated service to others, a Chinese Samurai before Samurais were invented.

In desperation, the king agrees to Ge Li’s demands that he takes command of the army and organises siege defences against the Zhao. “If we can hold out for a month, they will go away,” he says.

Ge Li is neither a superhero, nor a martial arts magician. His self-discipline and intelligence are the sources of his strength. In addition to the invading army, he has to protect himself against malicious plots within the king’s court, as the politics of power clashes with the practicalities of conflict.

The film is beautifully orchestrated, involving the simplicity of one man’s endeavour, with battles that dazzle the eye.

Reviewed on: 08 Jan 2009
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The art of surviving a siege in ancient China.
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Anton Bitel ****

Director: Jacob Cheung

Writer: Jacob Cheung, based on the manga by Ken'ichi Sakemi

Starring: Andy Lau, Ahn Sung-kee, Wang Zhi-wen, Fan Bingbing, Choi Si-won, Nicky Wu, Wu Ma, Chin Siu-ho, Hung Tin Chiu, Shaan Price

Year: 2006

Runtime: 133 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: China, Japan, South Korea, Hong Kong


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