Friday, November 21, 2014

Review of Bing Sheng: The Ultimate Master of War

Bing Sheng (2008), a TV dramatization of the life of legendary strategist and Art of War author Sun Tzu, runs the length of the Wu state's power peak period. It gets a little slow at times - specifically when the human drama bits are going on -- but its production values and inclusion of a range of major historical characters make it a great watch.

The latter, in fact, is its main attraction, with the tremendous amount of "fan service" available for Chinese history geeks. It starts with a young Sun Tzu in Qi during the era of the legendary Yan Ying and Sima Rangju, when the Sun and Tian clans were locked in conflict against the Gao and Guo clans.

Simultaneously, the Wu clan is in trouble for standing up for righteousness in the state of Chu. The story then follows how Sun Tzu and Wu Zixu leave their respective states, and eventually end up in the service of ambitious King Helv of the Wu state -- a confluence of military, civil and political factors that leads Wu to dominate the south and gain hegemony.

The achievements of the Sun/Wu partnership for the Wu state, however, results in political over-confidence and jealousy-driven schemes against them, and these serve as the moral lessons expressed in various story arcs in the later part of the the series. Other characters from that period also feature, including wily Prince Fuchai, corrupt minister Bo Pi, legendary swordsmith Ou Yezi and his apprentices Gan Jiang and Mo Ye, Chu figures Fei Wuji and Shen Yinxu, and leaders of ascendant Yue, King Gou Jian and strategist Fan Li.

As usual, though, some additional characters and subplots get thrown in to put some fat on the historical facts. In the case of Bing Sheng, the machinations of a vengeful scion of the Guo clan, which the Sun clan eliminated in Qi, drive much of the first half of the series, giving a face and a name to the Chu enemy. There is also a slightly awkward fictional spy subplot thrown in towards the end, as well as a few liberties taken with having Sun Tzu also serve under Fuchai. The eventual fate of Sun Tzu in the series, however, was actually written well.

The series does well as far as battle scene production and the armory, which is pivotal for a series about the art of war. Probably not very historically accurate, but each nation has its own well-designed style. The strategies used by Sun Tzu are also depicted well; I doubt that there is enough of an historical record to have these considered as actual historical accounts, but they are clearly Art of War in spirit, and Sun Tzu explains them well too. Acting in the series is generally good too, with Zhu Yawen and Zhao Yi doing a superb job portraying the world-weary Sun Wu and the fiery Wu Zixu. But for a few fast-forward scenes, it's a good series with plenty to delight a Chinese history fan.

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