The lead character, the lead actor, is the one who caught my attention. It probably should have been Maggie Q, lovely as ever, adorning the poster with grace and beauty. There’s a lovely interview of her on Youtube, conducted with Star Movies, about her experience of working on the film. It was, in a way, slightly condenscending to Asian guys, I think, because she has displayed such forthright attitude in trying to make this film work. She worked hard to try to get the lead actor to hang out with her, so that they can talk and get to know each other better, but he had apparently been wary of that. She didn’t quite criticise him, but it didn’t really put him in good light either. I’ll talk more about this later on, because it may just about prove to be the crucial piece in this particular jigsaw puzzle, but I’ll admit once more that it wasn’t her who caught my attention.
It was the actor. I couldn’t quite place him for almost half of the opening part of the film, and then I realised, it was the same actor who had appeared in Kim Ki-duk’s ‘Breath’ a few years back. That film stood out because of the mixed Korean-Japanese dialogue, which the characters understood anyway. It was a nice little trick, but I didn’t realise that Director Kim has been browsing through my filmography, because it was a trick I myself had used way back when in 2006, when ‘My Father’s Son’ blended together Korean, English, Malay and Arabic (albeit a mere two lines: “Assalamualaikum.” “Waalaikumsalam.”).
That, however, was a long time ago. So was ‘Breath’. The actor remained the same, and his name is Joe Odagiri. Our not-so-regular Joe here plays a soldier, Lu Shenkang, who was recruited into the army of General Zhang. However, there is one, tiny detail that the generals have overlooked in their recruitment: he doesn’t have the guts for warfare. In fact, Shenkang is a shepherd by trade, and he doesn’t like the sharp end of the killing business. It was portrayed clearly in a scene during which he hesitated against killing an enemy; Zhang had to come in and finish off the business for him. Over time, however, the two of them form an unlikely band, and it was Shenkang who managed to save his life. The general went back home early, being heavily injured, and Shenkang rose to prominence to become the general of that particular army. During winter, they decided to go back home, as fighting had become nigh on impossible. They stopped at the Harran village, where Shenkang slowly but surely falls in love with a woman he meets at the village. Unfortunately, there is a curse on those who get intimate with them…
…which was the point that completely, totally and utterly cut me off. I have to admit that up until that point, the development of the characters within the film is something questionable, but these are things that I could live with. I am not quite convinced of Shenkang’s ascension to becoming the general (although I do buy his portrayal of a shepherd). What happens here is the missing points in his own development curve. It is well-established that he is not a man who likes to kill, or even violence in that regard. In fact, the time he spends playing around with a young wolf he found is actually quite touching, and there’s more character development in those five minutes than there is within the remaining part of the whole film. It is a little too rapid, and you come away feeling that a few steps has been skipped. Perhaps they were shot, but cut away for brevity? For the record, the film barely lasted 100 minutes, but for some reason, these minutes seems to pass by very, very, slllooowwwllllyyyyy…
What is less forgivable, however, is the lack of care that I feel for the two main characters. I tried, boy, I tried, because I liked both of them. In ‘Breath’, I thought that Joe did a very nice job, and was interested in seeing him in this role. He even spoke Mandarin (or it might have been Cantonese, I am not sure), and the same goes for Maggie Q. Both of them, together, in the same scenes, seemed to be interested only in sex. Seeing how attractive Maggie Q is, I can’t really blame him. But I did remember a particular blog post by a screenwriter named John August, who mentioned about the perils of coincidences. Basically put, coincidences can work out well, but it can also stretch the elasticity of believability. In this case, General Shenkang just happens to come into a house that has a really nice woman, who, despite initially resisting his advances, just happens to fall in love with him. Those who makes love to the Harran tribespeople, however, just happens to turn into wolves sooner rather than later. That is an interesting aspect in itself, but at the risk of spoiling the movie a bit, we are never really show the process that a person changes into a wolf.
But that’s OK, for in film, despite the ability to show every single thing, and to create anything we want, it doesn’t necessarily mean that we have to. I find that some of the more powerful scenes required the audience member to use their imagination, to imagine the violence behind the closed-door. Perhaps another way would be to show how the human aspect of a living human being may slowly be eroded away, as they become more and more animalistic. Perhaps this is a part of the reason why they have so much sex, being more and more unable to resist the animal and primal attraction between the two of them. It is unfortunate that the two of the characters don’t really click. A big part of the blame may be at the feet of the actors; as I had detailed in the opening paragraph of this film, perhaps one or both of them could have done more. An even bigger part may well be the script themselves; you feel as if you’re missing the moments when one or both of them started to become mutually attracted to each other. A few glances here, a longer stare there probably wouldn’t go amiss. It would at least help to create some believable tension between the two, rather than just having Maggie Q trying to tokenly resist his initial rapes (they can only be described as that).
It’s a pity, because the film itself is absolutely beautiful. At times, it is drop dead gorgeous. Take, for example, the scene of the army marching through the desert on their way home. I spend half the time trying to figure out whether it was actually shot in the middle of nowhere, or whether at least half of it was supplemented by green screen work. I couldn’t tell the difference, but to be honest, I didn’t think it should matter. The end result is a beautiful, oh so beautifully shot scene. What was interesting was that the camera operator didn’t shoot just the beautiful scenery, nor the weary soldiers, but also captured their shadows. In addition to being beautiful, it also serves as a metaphor, in two ways. One, they were already condemned to being wolves, apparently. Two, no matter what happens, they will be punished when they do get home, and most probably executed as well, by the government, for not continuing the fight. Dead man walking, and all that.
However, all that beauty doesn’t help to make up for the lack of attraction that I feel for both of the stars. By themselves, it makes me want to watch the movie. Together, they just didn’t have the right click, which is assuming that there is a click between the two of them to begin with. Watch it, however, for the beauty and the quality of the production (the weapons and costumes seems to be very authentic). Watch it also to see what not to do in trying to get two people to click.
Asian or otherwise.
Having said that, it’s not as if Fikri is a film genius himself…