Muk gong (A Battle of Wits) (2006)




Director:     Chi Leung 'Jacob' Cheung.

Starring:      Andy Lau (Ge Li),  Sung-kee Ahn (Xiang Yan-zhong),  Zhiwen Wang (King of Liang),  Bingbing Fan (Cavalry Chief Yi Yue),  Si Won Choi (Prince Liang Shi).

a film set amid the Warring States period 


Spoiler warning:  below is a summary of the entire film. 


A little girl hears a voice:  "Xiao Xiao, stay in here, no matter what, don't come out, okay?  I'll be right behind the wall."

Flashback.  In 370 B.C., in  the Warring States Era, the Zhao Nation dispatched 100,000 warriors led by Xiang Yanzhong, to attack Yan nation.  Liang stands right on his path to Yan.  There's no way she can resist Zhao's mighty troops and will be definitely be taken as a buffer state.  Their only chance for survival is to ask for the help of Mozi warriors who are experts in defending, but as Liang teeters on the edge of peril Mozi warriors still had not arrived.

The Prince tells the King of Liang:  "Father, we must fight!"  The Royal Tutor steps up to say that Commander Xiang Yanzhong is a brilliant strategist.  And his advance troops have already arrived.  He says they must surrender or they will all be done for.  Another man asks what would happen if the Mozi army could reach Liang? 

A woman arrives on horseback and dismounts.  Everyone seems to be riding out and she wants to know why.  The answer is that all cavaliers have been ordered to wait at the South Gate for General Niu's orders.  A messenger tells General Niu that the surrender note and cavaliers are ready.  The gates are opened and out go the cavaliers. 

Another messenger tells the son of the King that someone approaches from the west.  He is a Mozi, named Ge Li.  The gate opens for him.  And virtually right behind him the Zhao warriors are advancing.  The Prince sends out more cavaliers to give the Zhao Commander their surrender notice.  But as the cavaliers are let out of the gate, the order is given for the Zhao army to attack. 

Meanwhile Ge Li is saying that surrendering won't satisfy the Zhao warring state.  The Zhao warriors kill the cavaliers and keep riding forward. Ge Li says their ministers will be killed and the families of the soldiers will be ruined with the women dishonored.  The Prince listens to this and shouts down for  the Mozi to start his defense actions against the Zhao.  Ge Li runs to a position with the sun to his back.  He takes a bow and fires a modified arrow that nearly hits General Gao.  As it is, he falls off his horse.  A message is signaled to General Gao that General Wei commands him to retreat. 

His Majesty is informed that a Mozi arrived and drove away the Zhao's vanguard.  The King, however, is drunk.  He says:  "Nonsense!" and then stumbles down the short steps. 

General Gao demands to know from General Wei why he stopped his attack?  Because, says Wei, Liang has already sent someone to surrender.  Wei then gives the order that all paths to Liang be blocked and all water sources be poisoned. 

A soldier tells Ge Li that Prince Liang Shi offers him accommodations for the night in the horse stables. 

The King's counselor, the Royal Tutor, suggests that they turn over Ge Li to the Zhao because he assaulted the Zhao vanguard.  But what about the Mozi? asks the King.  Won't they be furious? 

Ge Li is brought to see the King.  The King asks him, without experience in leading men or protecting a city, how will he be able to defend Liang? Ge Li says Zhao's real target is the Yan Nation.  They wouldn't risk their mission on Liang.  Survival depends on how long Liang can hold out.  He believes if they get hold out against the Zhao for one month, then Zhao will retreat. Then Ge Li asks the King to give him total command over the Liang military.  The King asks him about the possibility of not fighting at all.  Ge Li says all the Liang men will be made slaves .

The King appears before his troops and tells the Prince that he must obey Ge Li's commands.  Ge Li tells everyone that since their south wall is the weakest that is where the enemy will attack.  Within seven days they must built and finish a bulwark which will be their first line of defense.   The pretty cavalry leader Yi Yue asks that her cavalry be allowed to help move the stones to build the bulwark.  Permission granted. 

The construction of the bulwark starts.  Ge Li goes out with a group to scout the landscape around the walled city. 

Some peasants who abandoned the city see the oncoming enemy soldiers.  They try to quiet a crying baby so they don't all get killed.  The father takes the baby and puts his hand over the child's mouth.  He holds it too long and the baby dies.  The mother wails.  But it's too late.  The Zhao soldiers have discovered them and the first arrow is headed their way.  Some of them are taken as captives.  The Zhao learn from the peasants that a Mozi named Ge Li convinced the decision-makers to defend the city.  Four thousand people persuaded by one person?  How can that be when they are up against 100,000 soldiers? 

Ge Lit puts the archers under the control of Zi Tuan.  The Prince thinks he is better qualified as a leader and is not happy.  He tells his soldiers to arrest Zi Tuan.  This forces Ge Li to insist on his choice. The King says they will settle it by an archery contest between the Prince and Zi Tuan.  The Prince tells Zi Tuan to quit now and he will spare his life, but this does not deter Zi Tuan.  Zi Tuan wins. 

Four of the men who abandoned the city are beaten by the other peasants.  Ge Li stops this to ask the escapees questions about the Zhao camp.  They don't remember much because when they saw the Zhao sentries, they turned and ran. 

Zhao's Commander Xiang Yanzhong has come to speak with Ge Li at the South Gate.  They play a board game.  Xiang just wanted to see what kind of mind and man he was up against.  Ge Li wins the game.  He tells Xiang that he should go around Liang and leave them in peace, but Xiang refuses. 

Liang General Niu is put under Ge Li.  Ge Li goes over the defensive preparations with the various leaders.  After he dismisses the leaders, the cavalry commander asks for a specific assignment.  So he gives her one.  They are to be in charge of gathering all the excrement from the city. 

Ge Li speaks to the imprisoned peasants.  He says they will be put on the front lines to fight their enemy.  Fight and they will be freed. 

The Zhao archers send an avalanche of arrows into the city.  The excrement is spread on the roofs of the buildings in the city to protect against flaming arrows.  The call goes out to invade the South Gate.  At this time inside the city a group of Zhao spies start killing killing soldiers and civilians.  The cavalry comes to the rescue.  South Gate is forced open.  Zhao forces come in, but hot oil is poured on them that ignites burning the soldiers to death. 

Ge Li fights and kills a Zhao officer.  The Zhao General Gao gets a little too close and the Prince hits him with an arrow.  Zhao retreats.  Ge Li falls unconscious from exhaustion.  Yi Yue sits by him.  He awakens and talks to her for a short while.  She gives him a pair of boots she made, but he tells her that Mozi cannot accept gifts.  But he still hangs on to them. 

Someone offers a good suggestion to the Zhao Commander.  Leave some troops behind to hold Liang and head for Yan with the main force.  But the Commander says that they cannot lead their dispirited troops against Yan now.  They were defeated in their first battle with Liang. 

One of the renegade peasants wants to kill Ge Li so they can return to their loved ones.  One of the others guys doesn't want to do it.  Another peasant comes in saying he knows where Ge Li is.  They give the knife coated with poison  to the one man who least wants to kill Ge Li.  When the knife yielder just lets Ge Li pass by him, the one peasant who wants him dead the most grabs the knife and tries to kill Ge Li.  In the scuffle his face is cut with the knife and he soon falls dead from the poison.  A young woman then tries to kill Ge Li, but she is shot with an arrow.  Then the people beat her to death. 

Ge Li goes to spy on the Zhao camp.  The cavalry leader follows him.  Ge Li jumps Yi Yue thinking she is a Zhao soldier.  He is mad when he sees it's his cavalry leader he is attacking.  She tells him she knows a shortcut and to follow her.  So he does.  They see that the Zhao are digging tunnels.  Their presence is discovered and the couple have to run for their lives.  They get away by jumping off a cliff into the water below.  Yi Yue can't swim.  Ge Li saves her life.  He then gives her a piggy-back ride back to Liang.  After awhile he asks her if she feels better, but she just wants to remain hugging his neck, so she says no. 

Ge Li decides to let the tunnelers pop up inside the city.  They will deal with them in a dragnet.  At night the tunnelers pop up followed by soldiers, but Liang warriors quickly surround them.  Then they push burning hay into the tunnels.  The smoke drives everyone out of the tunnels.   The Zhao troops try to break through the encirclement but fences of sharpened poles slam in their faces.  The remaining soldiers surrender.  But when the main attack begins, they pick up their swords and charge.  They are all cut down by the archers. 

One of the slave tunnelers grabs a child and threatens to throw it to its death from a platform.  Ge Li tells him if he spares the child no harm will come to him.  After the slave gives the child back to the mother, the people attack him and Ge Li has to use his own body to shield him from harm until archers arrive to force the people back. 

General Niu kills what prisoners were taken.  This upsets Ge Li who says human beings should not be killed just for another man's pleasure.  This is reported to the King who says that the Mozi philosophy is good for times of defense, but not in times of peace.  He tells General Niu to make sure those revolting Mozi ideals are not spread among the Liang people.    

Yi Yue visits Ge Li again.  He says he will be going after the battle is over and it will be over soon.  And he wonders if he is right or wrong to kill an enemy in a dragnet?  In the process of removing her outer garments, she asks him is it only war that can make him stay?  He starts to grab her but she asks:  "What for?"  As she puts back on some of her outer garments, she says that whether he is right or wrong she wants to be with him.  She adds that Ge Li always talks about love in universal terms, but she thinks he should know what love really is.  She leaves. 

Good news has arrived via a spy recently returned from Zhao Nation.  The King of Qi has ordered an army of 200,000 setting off five days ago to attack Zhao Nation.  The counselor to the King says if that is the case, Xiang Yanzhong will be called back, and the King should take power back from Ge Li now.  General Niu says they don't have to worry about Ge Li's supporters rebelling.  But the King says that fostering admiration among the people is a form of rebellion. 

Most of the Zhao army is sent back to the Zhao Nation.  But the Commander is still at Liang with 1,000 men.  He thinks they might be able to take advantage of Liang being under the impression that all the Zhao troops have left.   

Now Ge Li seeks Yi Yue out.  He stares but does not speak and then leaves.  She runs after him, sees that he has her boots on his feet and asks:  "New boots?"  She laughs.  He leaves. 

Ge Li sets up a kitchen near the Zhao camp.  The peasants with him inform Ge Li that the Zhao camp is now empty.  Ge Li goes to check it out for himself.

Ge Li returns to the city.  But he is arrested.  The charge is that he defended Liang under false pretenses and initiated rebellion by imposing personal adoration   The Prince arrives and asks Ge Li how dare he try to steal his land?  He says he is going to kill Ge Li.  The fight begins.  During the fight the Prince whispers to Ge Li to take him hostage.  Ge Li takes him hostage.  The Prince wants to go with Ge Li, but the Mozi tells him it is more important that he go back. 

Ge Li and his peasants start to leave.  Gen Niu has his archers release a hail of arrows at them.  Ge Li is hit and most of the peasants are killed.  The soldiers go to look for Ge Li's body but do not find it.  The King learns that the archery shooting ended up in the accidental killing of the Prince.  And Liang is still under the threat of rebellion.  The King is very upset but agrees to let Niu defeat the rebels and after that he will receive his sentence.  The soldiers start rounding up people willy-nilly.  Yi Yue is shocked at this behavior. 

The slave that Ge Li freed is the one who took Ge Li off the field of death.  He got the arrow out of Ge Li's back and patched him up.  The slave is very angry at Liang:  "You saved them and they turn against you."  He adds that peace will only come when the seven nations unite.  The slave tells Ge Li that with all this Mozi talk of "universal love" as the way to peace, leaves Ge Li not knowing who he should love.  But Ge Li says he is going back to Liang to tell someone he loves that he is safe.  The slave says he is too weak, so he will take the message to the one he loves.  Ge Li gives him the boots that Yi Yue gave him. 

The rebels are to be executed.  Among them is Yi Yue.  The King says she will be executed and then buried with his son, with whom Yi Yue grew up.  Yi Yue back talks the King and he says she will be torn to shreds between five horses.  Yi Yue has her tongue cut out.  She is kept in a jail cell.  The slave throws down Ge Li's boots to her. 

The Zhao Commander prepares his men for the battle to come.  They wait for night.

In the city they prepare to execute Yi Yue.  Just as she is strapped down by five ropes tied to five horses, the Zhao use hot air balloons to come over the walls of Liang.  General Niu tells his men to take Yi Yue back to her cell.  The roof buildings are set on fire by flaming arrows.  Meanwhile a frontal assault is launched on the city walls. 

News comes to General Niu that the rebel archers have taken down the North Gate.  Around 800 of them escaped.  The General gives the order to abandon the North Gate and get all the soldiers to the bulwark. 

General Niu is told that they are defeated.  Zhao troops arrive and kill the General.  The King and his court are captured.  The Zhao Commander wants Ge Li brought to him but the counselor explains that he escaped.  Zhou soldiers are sent out to shout from the hilltops that if Ge Li does not return to Liang all of Liang and its people will be destroyed. 

Ge Li returns on horseback.  He challenges the Zhao Commander to a match in the tower.  If he wins, the Zhao will leave Liang in peace.  When the two leaders are alone in the tower, Ge Li suggests that he will stay in the tower while the Commander walks out.  But the Commander wants to kill Ge Li to avenge the 5,000 Zhao soldiers who died in the battles.  Ge Li tells him to leave with his men now or they will all die.  The Commander doesn't know what to say.

Just then the slave finishes his job of digging to get to the poisoned water source.  The waters pours into the tunnels and gush up into the center of the city where the Zhao soldiers are standing.  Then Ge Li's archers arrive.  They come in behind burning carts filled with hay.  The soldiers are soon being back up into one section of the city.   Ge Li tells the Commander to leave the tower.  But the Commander says he will stay.  He says he has been defeated, so Ge Li should walk out and he will stay.  But Ge Li tells the Commander he is the only one who can go out there and save his last soldiers.  Ge Li is going to save someone he loves. 

Ge Li runs to the jail shouting "Yi Yue"!  The water is flooding her jail cell and it soon will be over her head.  (She is chained to the wall.)  She hears him but cannot shout out to him. 

The Zhao commander tells his men to leave.  General Wei will lead them out. General Wei says he won't lead the retreat.  So his men grab him and force him to go with them. 

Ge Li sees laces hanging over one of the air holes on top of a jail cell.  He smashes the wooden slats and jumps into the cell filled with water.  But by the time he finds Yi Yue, she has drowned. 

The King has the tower hit by flaming arrows.  The Zhao Commander stays to be burned alive. 

Back to the present.  The little girl stops and looks back toward Liang.  Ge Li leads the little children out of the city. 

Five years later, the Liang King was overthrown and executed.  Liang was then renamed.  Not a year later, Zhao Nation took over this new City and finally, Qin united the seven nations.  Ge Li, leading his group of orphans travels around different nations to pass on his message of peace. 


Good movie.  It is mostly an action story with just a bit of a love story.  The battle sequences are good and the defenses used by the Mozi warrior Ge Li were interesting.  (This is now the fourth straight Chinese film I have watched with an unhappy ending to the love story.)   Thank goodness this love story was not all that compelling, so I was not as upset about the fate of this love relationship. 

Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D. 


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