Wolves have a storied place in mythology and folklore ranging from reverence to revulsion. Wolves tend to be venerated in Native American cultures – but it’s just a tendency. Romulus and Remus were wolves and they founded Rome. We’ve all been warned to ‘beware of wolves in sheep’s clothing’, and we know how poor Red Riding Hood fared. And, uh, hello … werewolves? Based on a story by Akutagawa-winner Inoue Yasushi, The Warrior and the Wolf is a three-part meditation on our collective bestial natures, the constant fight to keep those instincts at bay and the inevitable destiny that won’t allow us to do so. Set during a period of Han conquest over smaller tribes, the film is another visual winner cursed with clunky thematics and one enormously misguided narrative choice.
In the first act General Zhang (Tou Chung Hua) takes pacifist shepherd Lu Shenkang (Odagiri Jo) under wing and makes him over into a fierce soldier. After Zhang is captured in a blue-tinged, hand-held camera battle, Lu gets the injured Zhang back in a hostage swap and sends him home. In Warrior’s strongest segment, Tou and Odagiri do a fine, mostly dialogue-free time of convincing us of their nuanced teacher/pupil connection. Tou makes Zhang a respectful and empathetic leader whose decisions are based on strategy, who takes a shine to Lu because of the innate sensitivity he sees in the younger man. When Lu adopts a wolf pup (that looks suspiciously like a German shepherd) it acts as a stand in for his own precarious innocence.
Now in command of the army (!) part two begins as Lu leads the troops into a Harran village to wait out the winter. The resident of a house he’s squatting in, The Woman (Maggie Q), clearly wants him out of her home and for this insolence Lu rapes her (!!). Incredibly, time drags on and Lu and The Woman’s ‘relationship’ morphs from forcible assault, to coerced intercourse and finally to true love (!!!) in the most intense case of Stockholm Syndrome ever. On top of this, all that sex (and there’s lots of softly lit, soggy, vaguely animalistic sex) binds Lu and The Woman together as wolves and sets up the final act. When Zhang comes back through the area, he and his men are confronted with some angry animals and the audience is confronted with memories of Ladyhawke. It is here that destiny catches up to the three and we are told that a leopard can’t change its spots. Okay, wrong metaphor but you get the idea.
For all its conflicting messages Warrior looks like a million bucks, despite some dodgy CG. Wang Yu’s cinematography tells the story succinctly and beautifully – a good thing when only two of three leads are fluent in the film’s spoken language. Oddly, the obvious dubbing isn’t nearly as distracting as it could be, but with the visualist Tian (Springtime in a Small Town) at the helm it’s irrelevant. Warrior’s biggest flaw is in execution of the story’s ideas, which are overwhelmed by eroticising Lu and The Woman’s interaction. By doing so Tian puts a dagger into the heart of his own message. None of Tian’s other films suggest that Tian is down with the idea that women can be beaten/raped into affection, but the ridiculousness of the concept – on the screen – blinds us to anything else.