The Warrior and the Wolf Review
Adapted from a short Japanese novel, The Warrior and the Wolf was suggested to Tian Zhuangzhuang by fellow luminary Hou Hsiao-Hsien who believed the story uniquely suited to the director. It is largely a tale of an individual who takes on circumstance and the plans of men to finally find a natural sense of belonging, and perhaps it's possible to see Zhuangzhuang's rebel past and his more comfortable present as parallel to this story arc. Whatever the basis for his friend's insight, it does seem to have been a successful pairing as Warrior and the Wolf is a very satisfying and moving experience./
Set, like many of the recent Bill Kong produced Chinese blockbusters, in the warring states period, the film makes much of dramatic Chinese landscapes and a majesty of geography which emphasises the small humanity upon which the viewer is asked to concentrate. Natural beauty is pitted against human endeavours with the conquering efforts of General Zhang creating carnage and decimating tribes and the wildlife that stands in the way of an empire building China. We follow Lu as he is co-opted into Zhang's army and eventually replaces the commander who befriended him in an act of self-sacrifice.
A rare man, Lu is driven to murder and violence but his sympathy for the natural world never wavers. His fate is sealed in the world of men when the troops are defeated and he takes the blame for Zhang, and as a dead man walking he leads his troops back to his certain execution whilst fighting the extreme elements of winter and superstition. Holed up against a blizzard, Lu finds his hiding place already has an occupant and a transformative relationship begins with violation.Undeniably woolly and mystical, The Warrior and The Wolf pays off for any viewer willing to believe in the poetic license the story craves. In fact, the fantastic elements prove a challenge to modern technology as the computer animated wolves are required to provide more presence than the digital effects can convincingly offer. Similarly, you may find yourself wondering whether backwards tribal women hiding in bunkers are quite as magnificently beautiful as Maggie Q, and it may be difficult to separate her action star pedigree from the more serious dramatic identity needed here. The film-makers have clearly foreseen the difficulties audience may have in following the tale as they offer regular on-screen narrative to explain the plot's developments.
Still, the spirit of man and beast and the call to a romantic freedom is intoxicating enough to forgive some structural difficulty, miscasting and over officious production. There are a number of rape scenes which will test your forbearance and your sexual politics, but the eventual development of mates does feel true and the notion of the lovers literally accepted into nature passionately asserted. The larger crowd scenes are brilliantly handled and one sequence in a tornado called to mind the "blizzard" sequence in Kurosawa's Dreams. Outstanding costumes, a perfect sense of time and especially strong work from the two leading men allow you to believe what you are watching.It's far from perfect and slightly ragged and perhaps that's the point in a story where the "civilising" efforts of empire are frustrated by natural freedom. Zhuangzhuang delivers a populist film that retains his individuality and distrust of human authority.
Disappointingly, English subtitles are not optional and are burnt into the transfer throughout. Contrast is also a little flaky, shadow detail poor and some edge enhancement is evident in skylines. Visually this transfer needs to rely on its handling of shade as the colour palette here is muted, and unfortunately on that score this is a decidedly average transfer. Darker sequences lack subtlety of variation and even though detail in the lighter moments is acceptable, this is not an impressive looking presentation.The sole master audio mix makes use of all six channels well enough, with the LFE particular impressive in the tornado and battles. There is decent coverage with effects mixed well according to where they are coming from, the voices don't always seem well synced but are very clear and I wonder if this is an ADR issue. The sense of the forced subs is always good and they are of excellent quality in terms of grammar and English.
The well-made “making of” documentary is much better than many featurettes you will have skimmed through recently. The opinions of producer, director, cast and crew follow the images of shooting on location and occasional direct to camera interviews. Maggie Q seems well out of place in the round of wizened Chinese talking heads dressed in hooded top with her very American tones. Sincere and competent, this is no simple piece of PR fluff and well worth watching.
The final extra is the film's trailer.
Imperfect and earnest, The Warrior and the Wolf won't be for everyone but I liked it a lot. The blu-ray release is underwhelming with a so-so transfer and forced subs