Editor, Asia; Hong Kong, China (@Marshy00)

It's a struggle to summarise exactly what happens in the first half hour of Tian Zhuangzhuang's THE WARRIOR AND THE WOLF as it largely resembles a cobbled together mass of random sequences and unrelated footage from a frenzied shoot in the Mongolian wilderness, haphazardly lap dissolved back and forth into each other in a struggle to form a coherent narrative.

Odagiri Jo plays Lu, a mountain-dwelling shepherd, recruited into the Imperial Army, during China's epic Warring States Period. Along with many other eligible males from the area, Lu is allocated weaponry and armour, still warm and sticky from the blood of its previous owners, and immediately thrown into battle against local nomadic tribesmen, with minimal training or explanation. Lu is seen attempting to desert and stubbornly refusing to kill anybody, yet after a few words and a forceful hand from his commanding officer, General Zhang (Tou Chunghua), Lu is suddenly slaying people left and right, glaring wild-eyed into bonfires and howling demonically at the moon. At one point he even rescues Zhang from a hostage situation, although, like many key incidents, much of this information is gleaned solely from onscreen captions, which appear sporadically to explain what it is exactly we're looking at onscreen.

The opening act is totally disorientating, and it is never entirely clear whether Lu is now leading his own squad of soldiers or living an idyllic existence on a lush hillside, rearing a young wolf cub. It appears at various stages that both of these are true, until a blizzard forces Lu and his troops to hole up in a cursed, and seemingly deserted village. The coming of the snow thankfully forces Lu's men - and the film - to stand their ground and regroup.

No sooner has Lu got the fire going to warm his mitts, does Maggie Q emerge, literally out of the ground, clad only in a furry toga. After trying to explain that her people are cursed, the battle weary Lu wastes no time in ravaging her. The woman repeatedly warns Lu that copulating with an outsider will invoke the curse and affect him as well as her. But Lu seems not to care and as time goes on, his persistent raping eventually subsides into consensual lovemaking and a fatalistic love affair blossoms between them.

Certainly there are moral questions to be raised about Tian's representation of this relationship. Flippant critics may take issue with the fact that Maggie Q is basically raped until she loves it, but in her defence, she was a deeply scarred individual way before Lu arrived on the scene and is victim of a supernatural burden that might well hamper her chances of a normal relationship in the future.

I never expected the appearance of Maggie Q to actually make a film better, but here she does and not only due to her persistent near-nakedness, welcome though it is. The film's middle hour, set almost entirely within the confines of her snowbound shack, is easily the strongest section of the film. The relationship between Lu and the girl is primal, feral and yet desperately passionate. Tian develops genuine intrigue as to the fate of these doomed lovers and the anticipation grows in hope of a climactic, otherworldly finale. The final act, however, loses its footing once more. After a fantastic sequence involving a sandstorm and hundreds of spectral wolves, the film jumps ahead five years, clumsily reintroducing characters vaguely recognizable from Act One for a largely meaningless final chapter, before segueing into an ending borrowed wholesale from Mike Nichols' WOLF.

But, despite its grand failures in storytelling, THE WARRIOR AND THE WOLF is staggeringly beautiful to look at and never a chore to watch. Almost every moment spent outside the lovers' retreat delivers gorgeous mountain vistas, epic wastelands or weather-ravaged battlegrounds and it is easy to see why Tian insisted on throwing it all up on screen, regardless of how it worked as a narrative. The film also has a mercifully tight running time, helping it hold the attention, despite failing to fully entertain. The ridiculously good-looking stars don't hurt the production either. Odagiri Jo is insanely talented and commands the screen with precious little effort. Despite his plight being hard to follow on occasion, his charismatic performance demands your sympathy throughout. Maggie Q here finds a role that plays to her strengths of basically being hot and playing the enigmatic seductress. It is entirely believable how Lu is drawn in by her animalistic sexuality despite knowing the dangers involved. Once again, however, it must be noted that both leads have been clumsily dubbed into Mandarin, further fuelling a thousand ongoing debates the world over.

So, in the end THE WARRIOR AND THE WOLF is a failure, but a beautiful one rife with segments of genuinely interesting material. Perhaps a longer cut exists somewhere and will emerge at some later stage, allowing the first Act the room to breathe that it certainly needs. As it stands, however, it is nothing more than an intriguing middle act, bookended by rambling nonsense.

The Warrior and the Wolf

  • Zhuangzhuang Tian
  • Zhuangzhuang Tian (screenplay)
  • Yasushi Inoue (novel)
  • Maggie Q
  • Joe Odagiri
  • Tsung-Hua Tuo
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Zhuangzhuang TianYasushi InoueMaggie QJoe OdagiriTsung-Hua TuoActionDramaHistory

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