A semi-mythical yarn that too often ends up being borderline incoherent.

A semi-mythical yarn that too often ends up being borderline incoherent, “The Warrior and the Wolf” reps a disappointing attempt by mainland Chinese vet Tian Zhuangzhuang (“The Blue Kite”) to helm an action feature with commercial potential. Teaming Japanese star Joe Odagiri with Hawaii-born babe Maggie Q (in her first attempt at a nondecorative role), this tale of a soldier who falls for a cursed tribal woman has baffled Chinese auds since its Oct. 2 release and looks likely to have the same effect on all but the most loyal of Tian’s arthouse fans in the West.

Set in a distant past — more than 2,000 years ago during the Warring States period prior to China’s unification — the pic too often feels like the carcass of a much longer original. Explanatory text is frequently inserted so as to guide the viewer through the potholes in the narrative — and in at least one case, to patch in narrative that’s absent from the screen. The result is a woolly fable of bewitchment, punctuated by gritty action and some great scenery (pic was lensed around the Balikun Kazakh Autonomous Region of Xinjiang province) that makes a punchy trailer but bellyflops as a movie.

First reel is especially, uh, “impressionistic,” as hard-ass Gen. Zhang Anliang (Taiwan’s Tou Chung-hua), whose motto is, “Kill or be killed,” is shown leading war-weary soldiers against rebellious tribes in the desolate Kunlun Mountains. Zhang comes across a shepherd, Lu Chenkang (Odagiri), whom he tries to inculcate with his military philosophy, and to whom he gives charge of a young tribal prince the army has captured.

Lu isn’t a natural killer and prefers to spend time with a cute wolf cub that’s taken a liking to him, but Zhang presses him into service and turns him into a hard-bitten fighting machine. When Zhang is captured by a tribe — a sequence never shown onscreen — Lu exchanges him for the prince, causing Zhang much shame.

Zhang is carted back home, Lu takes over command, and the army spends the winter in a deserted village of the Harran tribe, where Lu discovers a frightened widow (Q) hiding underground. Keeping her secret from his troops, Lu first rapes her, then falls for her. She says she’s cursed to transform into a wolf if she ever copulates with a non-Harran but continues to roll in the hay with Lu all the same.

Processed in cold, gray-blue colors, the pic is heavy with the scent of death and doom. Dialogue is best described as “laconic,” though often close to laughable in its attempt at mythic feeling. Tian did all this much better — though without stars and such rich production values — in his early opuses, “On the Hunting Ground” and “Horse Thief,” with which he first made his name in the mid-’80s.

With both Odagiri and Q dubbed into Mandarin, it’s hard to talk of performances, though the former looks relatively convincing as the conflicted warrior. Tou is the most impressive of the three leads but stuck in a poorly written role.

Emi Wada’s costumes and Liu Weixin’s production design have a weathered, gritty look that extends to the warfare, though the use of CGI during a wolf attack and in the pic’s final scenes is weak. Most of the atmosphere comes from a busy score by Russian and Chinese hands.

The Warrior and the Wolf

China-Singapore-Japan

Production

A China Film Group Corp. (in China)/Focus Features (in U.S.) release of a Sky Eagle Worldwide Holdings, Perfect World Culture Communication Co., China Film Group, BDI Films (China)/MediaCorp Raintree Pictures (Singapore)/TV Tokyo Corp. (Japan) presentation of a BDI Films production. (International sales: Fortissimo Films, Amsterdam.) Produced by Bill Kong, Hao Li, Satoru Ogura, Han Sanping. Executive producers, Daniel Yun, Song Ge, Han Xiaoli, Jiang Tao. Directed, written by Tian Zhuangzhuang, from the short story by Yasushi Inoue.

Crew

Camera (color, widescreen), Wang Yu; editor, Wenders Li; music, Evgueni Galperine, Sacha Galperine, Du Wei, Zhao Li; production designer, Liu Weixin; costume designer, Emi Wada; sound (Dolby Digital), Andrew Neil, Terry Tu, Rocky Zhang; sound designer, Tu; special makeup effects designer, Mark Gabarino; visual effects supervisor, Ellen Poon; action director, Zhang Jinghua. Reviewed at Megabox 3, Beijing, Oct. 6, 2009. (Also in Toronto Film Festival -- Special Presentations; Rome Film Festival -- noncompeting.) Running time: 95 MIN.

With

Joe Odagiri, Maggie Q, Tou Chung-hua. (Mandarin dialogue)

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