Like almost all the Chinese historical action dramas of recent years, Battle of Wits is sumptuously shot in gorgeous, riveting colour. The battle scenes are intense and (almost always) compelling, and the plot, based on a Japanese novel of the same name, is surprisingly complex, eschewing the grand sweeps of House of Flying Daggers, Hero and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.
However, the English subtitles are absolutely appalling, frequently failing to make much sense in English, and the cutting together of scenes is over-rapid and reflects video standards of thirty years ago, not the flawless visual brilliance we have come to expect from this kind of film.
I suspect this film was originally intended to be longer. It's especially at the beginning that shots are over-edited and cut together like a series of vignettes, with little continuity or explanation. As the film goes on, things settle down (or perhaps you just get used to it), although there are still plenty of unexplained moments which may or may not make sense in Chinese, but really don't through the subtitles. On the other hand, many of the subtitles are redundant, telling us what we are seeing on the screen (though this is what the characters are doing), when the glorious camera work is sufficient.
Why four stars, then? Despite all this, this is a really enjoyable film to watch, with a philosophic undercurrent (Mohism) which will be entirely new to most Westerners, although it was important in the time the film is set in. If you want to get a picture of what it's about, it's a sort of Last of the Mohicans meets Seven Samurai, although in a fully Chinese setting which is much more subtle, and carries a strong sense of history.
If you have already watched Hero
, House Of Flying Daggers
and Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon
, and are willing to broaden your horizons, this is a rewarding film, although darker in tone.