land will be befouled and God’s creatures will be senselessly slaughtered. This
is not England during the Industrial Revolution or America amid the Reagan
Revolution. It is China in full throes of the Cultural Revolution. As they
witness the consequences first-hand, two formerly eager volunteers will be deeply
disillusioned by the Party’s ruinous policies in Jean-Jacques Annaud’s Wolf Totem (trailer here), which opens this Friday
in New York.
they first arrive, cadres Chen Zhen and Yang Ke really believe they will be
making a difference for the hardscrabble herders of Inner Mongolia. However,
they quickly learn to respect the power of nature, especially the danger and
beauty of the regions’ wolves. They also cannot miss the bad vibes radiating
off the local party boss, Bao Shunghi. However, they manage to settle in with
their ethnic Mongolian hosts rather nicely, especially considering the
condescending nature of their assignment.
they learn more from the herders than vice versa. After a too-close-for-comfort
encounter with a wolf pack, Chen Zhen becomes increasingly fascinated with the
Eurasian Wolves. He cannot shake the idea they deliberately spared him.
Therefore, he is increasingly appalled by Bao’s cruel bounties on wolves, to
pave the way for the locust-like settlers. He is also threatening the nomadic
herders’ traditional way of life by despoiling their grassland for his
developments. Seeing the wolves’ numbers dwindling, Chen Zhen does something
rash. He secretly adopts an orphaned wolf cub. Yet, it is immediately clear the
young wolf will always be too wild to live among people, but might become too
domesticated to survive in nature.
not take this as a joke: it is frankly amazing what expressive performers these
wolves are on the big screen. Lead training Andrew Simpson raised 35
region-appropriate wolves especially for the film—and the camera absolutely
loved them. Even with extensive safety measures in place, Feng Shaofeng did not
escape injury working closely with the wolves, but it was probably worth it. The
co-star of White Vengeance and The Golden Era gives probably his career
best performance as Chen Zhen. Once again, Shawn Dou is stuck playing second banana,
but he keenly expresses the bitter nature of their hard lessons learned. Yin
Zhusheng also makes a perfectly odious yet charismatic villain as Bao. Regardless,
nobody will ever upstage those wolves.
is a not-so minor miracle this adaptation of Lu Liamin’s autobiographical novel
(written as Jiang Rong) was ever made, especially considering Annaud was banned
from China for years following Seven
Years in Tibet. The explicit environmental themes and only slightly more
muted critiques of the Cultural Revolution are also third-rail kind of subjects
for the state film authorities. Nevertheless, they not only lifted Annaud’s ban
and helped underwrite the production, they also chose Totem as China’s official foreign language Academy Award
submission. Clearly, they are playing to win rather than score PR points with a
non-existent international audience, as they often have in the past. Big and
sprawling, with a green conscience, Totem
is an Academy-friendly film, in nearly every way.
It also happens to be a very good film, which is
a nice bonus for the rest of us. Totem offers
more striking proof of why Annaud is considered the best contemporary narrative
filmmaker working with animal and natural subjects. Cinematographer Jean-Marie
Dreujou captures all the wolves’ twitchy power as well as the stunning beauty
of the surrounding vistas. The late great James Horner’s reputation will also
be further burnished by what is sadly one of his final scores. Few composers
could produce such sweeping themes that are still so distinctive and evocative
of a film’s time and place. It is an aesthetic marvel and one of the best
environmental films in decades, precisely because it makes deeply compelling spiritual
and cultural connections to the threatened Mongolian ecosystem. Very highly
recommended, Wolf Totem opens this
Friday (9/11) in New York, at the AMC Empire.
Labels: Chinese Cinema, Cultural Revolution, Jean-Jacques Annaud