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Although many viewers might quite reasonably groan at the thought of yet another Warring States period swordsman epic, “The Warrior and the Wolf” is certainly a film which should give pause for thought, thanks to the presence of director Tian Zhuangzhuang. Indeed, the fifth generation helmer is somewhat of an unexpected choice for the genre, having previously been responsible for acclaimed dramas such as “Springtime in a Small Town” and “The Go Master”. If the thought of such a humanistic and artistically minded director turning his hand to the form wasn’t enough, the film also features an intriguing pan-Asian cast headed by Japanese actor Odagiri Joe (recently in Kore-eda Hirokazu’s “Air Doll” and who also starred in Korean auteur Kim Ki Duk’s excellent “Breath”) and Maggie Q (who has risen from the likes of Wong Jing’s “Naked Weapon” to Hollywood hits such as “Die Hard 4.0”).
Based upon a short story by Inoue Yasushi, the film is set in a bleak border region of China where warriors guard mountain passes from the barbarian hordes. After a gruelling series of battles which leave his men tired and wounded, a commander called Lu (Odagiri Joe) takes refuge in a seemingly abandoned village. There, he meets and forces himself upon a beautiful widow (Maggie Q), with whom he gradually forms a deep and mysterious bond, despite her warning that any outsider she mates with will turn into a wolf. Already thinking himself a dead man following his earlier surrendering of a valuable hostage in order to save the life of a friend, Lu ignores her words. Strangely, his attempts to leave the village end in failure, and eventually, his past catches up as reinforcements arrive.
Tian Zhuangzhuang pins his colours to the mast from early on, making it clear that “The Warrior and the Wolf” is no straightforward sword epic, beginning as it does with a confusing series of flashbacks and battle scenes that chart Lu’s rise from innocent farmer to hardened commander. The film’s narrative as a whole is ambitious and fragmented, and the viewer quickly has to adjust, with the film being driven by mood and primal notions rather than a coherent story in the traditional cinematic sense. Whilst it is wilfully obtuse, especially during its last act dive into mysticism, it never fails to engage and enthral, with Tian managing to evoke powerful images of human beings consumed by dark emotions, lust and animalistic nature.
Helped along by inter titles, the film has long stretches free from any dialogue, and this gives it a subtly poetic feel, and it works almost as a fable, with much left ambiguous and unsaid. Certainly, its central relationship is far from the love story suggested by the box art, with most of Odagiri Joe and Maggie Q’s screen time together being taken up with rough, non-consensual sex or with their exchanging brief, cryptic conversations. Whilst this does make the film determinedly inaccessible at times and may frustrate some viewers, it comes as a very welcome change from the usual steadfastly generic tales of heroism that have come to dominate the form. The film’s mood is melancholy throughout, and their relationship is far more interesting than it might have been, alternating between intense passion and seeming depressingly doomed.
To be fair, the film is not all art house ponderousness, and it does feature quite a few battle scenes, most of which are grim and bloody. A few shabby instances of CGI aside, the film is visually very impressive, with some gorgeous shots of the bleak, snowy mountains and icy lakes that make for a suitably haunted, other-worldly atmosphere very much in keeping with its themes. Although a bit too artistically minded to be truly naturalistic, Tian’s direction is gritty and grounded, which adds a welcome touch of authenticity, underlining the harshness and treachery of the environment and weather. This fits well with the plot, with the primal landscape providing a perfect backdrop for the characters’ physical and spiritual journeys.
What all of this means is anyone’s guess, but “The Warrior and the Wolf” offers a very welcome and thoughtful alternative to the usual Chinese epics, especially for those viewers willing to approach it with an open mind. Strange, affecting and even quite beautiful in its own gloomy way, it sees Tian Zhuangzhuang continuing his fine run of form as one of the country’s most interesting and challenging directors, and one of the few able to work within the confines of genre whilst still producing something fresh and different.
Zhuangzhuang Tian (director) / Zhuangzhuang Tian (screenplay), Yasushi Inoue (novel)
CAST: Maggie Q
Chung Hua Tou