'Wolf Totem' ('Lang Tu Teng'/'Le Dernier Loup'): Film Review
French director Jean-Jacques Annaud adapts the Chinese bestseller about a Beijing youngster who adopts a wolf cub in Inner Mongolia during the Cultural Revolution
While forced to stay with a nomadic tribe in Inner Mongolia during the Cultural Revolution, a studious young man from Beijing adopts a wolf cub and learns about animals and nature in Wolf Totem, a sometimes visually splashy adaptation of the eponymous Chinese bestseller by Jiang Rong. Despite having directed the Brad Pitt vehicle Seven Years in Tibet, which is still banned in China, French filmmaker Jean-Jacques Annaud was recruited by Chinese producers to direct this Mandarin- and Mongolian-language feature, which makes sense when one considers that Annaud is one of the few directors with extensive experience with wild animals, as demonstrated in his films The Bear and Two Brothers, the latter about two tiger siblings. However, his main strength turns out to be something of a liability here, as the animal footage looks fantastic but the humans are mere cardboard characters and their interactions with the wolves and each other don’t prove all that illuminating.
The film opened in China last week, over the New Year’s holidays, though its first-weekend numbers, reportedly around $7.5 million, are decidedly tepid for the adaptation of a bestseller that sold 20 million copies and cost almost $40 million to make. It will open Wednesday in France in a dubbed version and with optional 3D, and is being marketed as a family title, though it contains a lot of (mainly animal) deaths. And though the film’s politics are not as explicit as in the novel, no-doubt toned down to comply with Chinese censorship rules, some elements might also be too culturally specific for younger kids.
Bright Beijing students Chen Zhen (Feng Shaofeng, from The Golden Era) and Yang Ke (Shawn Dou) are sent to steppes of the northernmost province of Inner Mongolia in 1967, during the second year of the Cultural Revolution, as Chen explains in a voice-over that drifts in and out of the narrative. They are meant to teach the local nomad children to read and write Chinese, though it quickly becomes clear that especially Chen -- the movie rather quickly forgets about Yang -- learns more from the locals and especially their gray-bearded leader, Bilig (Basen Zhabu), than they do from him, and not only because there’s not a single scene in which Chen actually sits down to teach anyone Mandarin.
Chen’s fascination with the steppes wolves starts early on, after flouting Bilig’s advice and being cornered by a pack while traveling alone. This short early standoff already offers a solid showcase of not only James Horner’s strings and, later, brass-dominated score, which expertly ratchets up the tension, but also Annaud and cinematographer Jean-Marie Dreujou’s suggestive use of low camera angles and closeups that generate suspense and virtually anthropomorphize the menacing lupine creatures.
Indeed, there’s a sense throughout that the delicate balance of nature on the plains is something that can only be understood in human terms. Cast as the stereotypical wise old sage, Bilig reminds the bespectacled local Party apparatchik, Bao Shunghi (Yin Zusheng), that the wolves will be angry and come back for revenge if humans destroy the animals’ food sources to make a quick buck -- meat and fur are highly sought-after commodities -- or if they’ll kill the wolves’ young in spring, as per an official Party order that indirectly leads Chen to secretly save a cub from death and adopt it.
Though Feng is fine in the lead, the screenwriters, Annaud, Alain Godard, Lu Wei and John Collee, struggle to fashion a convincing and coherently flowing story out of Chen’s interactions with his baby cub or the locals, with the film too often feeling didactic or even somewhat patronizing toward the nomads. Bilig’s gorgeous daughter-in-law, Gasma (Ankhnyam Ragchaa), for example, only seems to be around so that the film can introduce an entirely perfunctory romantic storyline. Tellingly, all of the film’s emotional highlights come from scenes involving the animal rather than the human protagonists and there are only very few scenes in which the two interact in a manner that feels entirely synergetic.
Some ruminations on the way in which the Mongolians and the Han Chinese are like wolves and sheep, respectively, hint at the novel’s more pronounced political undertones, as does Bao’s admission that for him as a (Party) leader, it’s not his job to be loved but to implement orders, even if he doesn’t personally believe in them. Annaud is also clearly taken with the ecological message of natural balance that plays such a big part in the tribe’s relationship with the animals and landscapes around them and one of the film’s tangential pleasures is how Wolf Totem suggests the passing of the seasons, its impact on the yurt-dwelling nomads and the way it implicitly acknowledges how a centuries-old lifestyle is quickly being destroyed by the enormous country’s need to feed its ever-growing population.
For all of the narrative problems and lost opportunities, there’s no denying that Annaud can put together a terrific action sequence. The film's first setpiece, in which Bilig delivers a sottovoce running commentary on the actions of a pack slowly closing in a herd of gazelles, is all build-up but no real payoff. But a chase sequence about an hour in, involving horses and wolves in a nighttime snowstorm, is spectacularly staged, with stunning overhead shots and great use of minimal light, including the sickly yellow-green beams of the herdsmen’s flashlights that give the audience just enough of a sense of what’s going on while also illustrating the protagonists’ overwhelming sense of confusion and panic. Also noteworthy are two sequences, shot in broad daylight on the day after a wolf attack, that feature countless frozen animal carcasses in a lake that turn the results of nature’s cruelty into a thing of eerie beauty.
Two packs of wolves were specifically trained for this film from practically the day they were born, back in 2010, by animal trainer Andrew Simpson, who directed the spectacular Siberia-set documentary Wolves Unleashed. The results of Simpson and Annaud’s work is often stunning, even if it occasionally is clear that a shot’s fore- and background were not necessarily filmed simultaneously or even in the same place.
Production companies: China Film Co. Ltd., Reperage, Beijing Forbidden City Co. Ltd., Mars Films, Wild Bunch, China Movie Channel, Beijing Phoenix Entertainment Co. Ltd., Chinavision Media Group Ltd., Groupe Herodiade, Loull Production
Cast: Feng Shaofeng, Shawn Dou, Ankhnyam Ragchaa, Yin Zusheng, Basen Zhabu, Baoyingxige
Director: Jean-Jacques Annaud
Screenplay: Jean-Jacques Annaud, Alain Godard, Lu Wei, John Collee, based on the novel by Jiang Rong
Producers: La Peikang, Xavier Castano, Jean-Jacques Annaud
Executive producers: La Peikang, Zhao Duojia, Cao Yin, Allen Wang, Xu Jianhai
Director of photography: Jean-Marie Dreujou
Production designer: Quan Rongzhe
Costume designer: Ma Ying Bo
Editor: Reynald Bertrand
Music: James Horner
Special effects supervisors: Christian Rajaud, Guo Jinquan
Casting: Jessica Chen
Sales: Wild Bunch
No rating, 118 minutes