In his long career of making adventurous films all over the world about men and animals struggling to find their place in the wild — “Seven Years in Tibet,” “Quest for Fire,” “Wings of Courage,” “Two Brothers” and “Bear” — Jean-Jacques Annaud has made possibly his most complex and open-hearted examination of these themes yet in “Wolf Totem.”
If you would imagine a Jack London story about men and animals set in Inner Mongolia during the time of the Cultural Revolution when fanatical Chinese authorities thought they could re-engineer man, society and wildlife through sheer will power then you get a scant idea of what “Wolf Totem” is about.
Throw in the staggering logistics — a production schedule of around seven years to raise and train Mongolian wolves to work in a movie shot in 3D in the steppes of Mongolia along with 200 horses, nearly 1,000 sheep and a professional cast of actors — and then imagine a poet of the cinema is in charge, again, you get some idea. In this case though, only seeing is believing.
“Wolf Totem” sweeps a viewer up into history, ecology and a culture clash all staged in a staggeringly beautiful locale that changes before your eyes as man brings the mighty force of his destructive power to bear.
Yet the film’s stars are its wolves, magnificent in their teamwork and hunting tenacity, deadly in their attacks and fiercely independent of man even though man benefits from their animal population control.
The brightness of their eyes, the ferocity of their teeth and jaws where saliva drips as they patiently stalk prey, the thickness of fur coats to protect them from harsh weather make these magnificent creatures among the most fascinating animals in all the animal kingdom.
One of the most interesting aspects here is that this is a Chinese-financed movie, which can only mean that the Chinese have finally realized the price they’re paying for the pollution of their environment and government mismanagement of resources.
The film is based on a Chinese literary phenomenon by the same name published, at first with the author taking the pen name of Jiang Rong, in 2004. This 600-page tome tells the autobiographical tale of a city-bred youth, Chen Zhen, sent by the government to Inner Mongolia to learn the ways but also change the ways of the nomads.
During his years as a shepherd, he somewhat foolishly tried to raise a wolf cub. This put him at odds with the nomads but he was also at odds with the Han Chinese authorities when they moved non-nomadic people onto the virgin lands.
Feng Shaofeng, a Shanghai Theater Academy trained film actor, plays this role with just the right combination of naivety and tenacity. He must boomerang from wisdom to foolishness and from empathy to almost obtuseness throughout this character’s epic journey but Feng manages.
Shawn Dou plays his companion Yang Ke, but this role is not as developed as is Gasma (Ankhnyam Ragchaa), the widowed daughter of the the old nomadic master Bilig (Basen Zhabu).
Among the film’s amazing sequences is an attack at night during a ferocious blizzard by the wolves against the government’s elite horses as they smartly stampede them toward a frozen lake. Others include a wolf attack against an enclosure of sheep and the hunting down of the wolf pack by relentless government authorities that comes down to a single courageous wolf hunted by jeeps until he drops from exhaustion.
The rearing of the wolf cub is touching as it is traumatic as a creature of the wild has no business being raised in captivity that is so against its very nature. Tragedies nearly happen more than once.
The film, which can be seen in Imax as well as 3D, benefits greatly from these immersive techniques, which are mostly used as gimmicks these days. This is one of those films that cannot be watching on a “devise”or even on cable TV to the same awesome effect.
Annaud and his large crew, especially cinematographer Jean-Martin Dreujous, take full advantage of the striking grasslands of Inner Mongolia along with drone shots and an array of animals to bring the vastness of this story to the Very Big Screen. The late James Horner’s score reaches for majesty but at times lacks the necessary subtlety.
At the movie’s heart is a robust yet heart-breaking story of wolf packs whose admirable way of life yields to the destructive fury of humans with no sensibilities for the land or its god, known to the nomads as Tengger.
“Wolf Totem” resurrects this world in all its glory on a large screen that suits its subject.
Opens: September 11, 2015 (Columbia Pictures)
Production companies: China Film Co., Ltd., Reperage, and Beijing Forbidden City Film Co. Ltd. in association with China Movie Channel and Beijing Phoenix Entertainment Co., Ltd., supervised by China Film Co-Production Corporation
Cast: Feng Shaofeng, Shawn Dou, Ankhnyam, Yin Zhusheng, Basen Zhabu
Director: Jean-Jacques Annaud
Screenwriters: Alain Godard, Jean-Jacques Annaud, Lu Wei, John Collee
Based on the novel by: Jiang Rong
Producers: Jean-Jacques Annaud, Xavier Castano
Director of photography: Jean-Martin Dreujous
Production designer: Quan Rongzhe
Music: James Horner
Costume designer: Ma Yingbo
Wolf trainer: Andrew Simpson
Editor: Reynald Bertrand
PG-13 rating, 121 minutes