Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Posted by cendol

In many ways, Tian Zhuangzhuang's The Warrior and the Wolf turns out as one might expect that it would – which could be considered a problem. Tian's vision is uncompromising, cerebral and yet beautiful, fitting the Fifth Generation director's elegant, observational style. Exposition is sparse if not completely absent, and much of the film is internalized, with Tian never really showing why his characters or their situations overtly matter. For a historical biopic like Tian's The Go Master, that deliberate, hands-off storytelling is a workable choice, as history and a true-life subject can close the gap with the audience. However, for a period epic combining fantasy, romance and visual effects, a little more emotion or theatricality would be welcome.

Japanese actor Joe Odagiri subtly smolders as Lu, an ancient Chinese warrior who passively gives into a damned, yet oddly appropriate fate. As detailed in a time-jumping and rather confusing first act, Lu’s employment in the army has led to a decreasing sense of happiness in, well, just about everything. One winter, he and his squad camp out in tribal village, where Lu takes over a shack belonging to a mysterious widow (Maggie Q, radiating dirty, distant sensuality). He first rapes the widow, but over time a connection takes hold, their forced relations begetting deeper affection. Then she reveals the tribe’s curse: sexual affairs outside the tribe will result in both parties becoming wolves(!) within seven days. He ignores her, leading to continued consummation of their new love and a presumed lupine fate. Cue four-legged adventures and a final confrontation with Lu's former commanding officer (Tou Chung-Hua).

Warrior and the Wolf was based on a short story by Japanese author Yasushi Inoue, and one can see the film's prose roots in the screenplay. Conflict is largely internal, and Tian mirrors that with the acting and storytelling, which are far from forthcoming. The language here is visual; the film's art department and technical personnel (save the visual effects guys, whose work is noticeably unimpressive) turn in superlative work, helping make up for the distant characters and abstruse storytelling. Nobody in Warrior in the Wolf is likable, but their lives do take on a certain resonance when placed in these barren, beautiful environments. The characters are fatalistic and also lost, their souls seemingly damaged by the harsh, unforgiving lives they lead. It's understandable and even appropriate for these two characters to fall in love amidst their daily despair, with some of the images managing to carry more weight than any dialogue could.

But is the film enjoyable? For many audiences, likely not. The Warrior and the Wolf has many commercial elements, not least among them its stars, but this is not a commercial film. Unlike Zhang Yimou with Hero, Tian Zhuangzhuang has not adjusted himself to his genre's expectations, resulting in a costume epic that's so cerebral and morose that it will likely not connect to most viewers. The director's choices aren't necessarily wrong, and the film ultimately feels consistent with its presumed goals. However, when everything plays out, the end really doesn't feel like it justifies the means. There's stuff worth appreciating in Tian's technique, thought and themes, but the whole is so utterly distant that it never truly moves. Perhaps that was the intention - to create a cold epic with a tragic and completely internalized romance - but then it shouldn't surprise the filmmakers if audiences are polarized or even unhappy. Film art enthusiasts who enjoy interpretation above all else may find this the perfect antidote to the bombastic opulence of recent costume epics. For mass audiences, however, Warlords is probably more their cup of tea.


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