Despite its magnificent natural vistas and some pulse-pounding action in stunning 3D, “Wolf Totem” boils down to a familiar environmentalist allegory that doesn’t move or provoke too deeply. A wildlife drama centered on a Chinese man who embraces the spirit of the Mongolian wolf, the Sino-Gallic co-production is helmed by Jean-Jacques Annaud (“Enemy at the Gates,” “Seven Years in Tibet”), whose adaptation of Jiang Rong’s semi-autobiographical novel offers a simplistic interpretation of the author’s Blakean political visions. With a reportedly $38 million budget, the pic boasts outstanding production values that will represent its biggest draw, but the rural setting and arthouse trappings may alienate mainland viewers in the mood for glossy urban romances during Chinese New Year.
A former editor of the political magazine Beijing Spring who was imprisoned for three years following the student movement of June 4, 1989, Jiang (real name Lu Jiamin) spent 11 years in Inner Mongolia as a herder at the height of the Cultural Revolution. Published in 2004, the novel became a national hit and sold 20 million copies domestically (second only to Mao Zedong’s “Little Red Book”) and has been translated into 10 languages. It has also courted much controversy, derided as “fascist” or “Han Chinese bashing,” as well as prescribed as a gangster manual in parts of China. Yet, it’s easy to see why Annaud would see a kindred spirit in the author, whose literary themes of Darwinian survival, nature vs. civilization, and humans learning from animals mirror the elemental motifs of the director’s “The Bears” and “Two Brothers.”
In 1967, Beijing intellectuals Chen Zhen (William Feng Shaofeng) and Yang Ke (Shawn Dou) join a party-led “production team” in Inner Mongolia to improve the livelihood of the nomads, as well as droves of Han Chinese migrating to the area. Among the first generation of urban youths to volunteer to move to the countryside to learn from the peasants, Chen ends up receiving a startling higher education from the wolves that roam the vast plains. He barely escapes, but the hair-raising encounter arouses his fascination with these creatures. He befriends the sagacious Mongolian chief Bilig (Basen Zhabu), who imparts his knowledge about lupine behavior and explains their importance in balancing the ecosystem.
Bilig takes Chen to watch a pack of wolves ambush a herd of gazelles, and the cinematography by Jean-Marie Dreujou, who lensed Annaud’s “Two Brothers,” rivetingly conveys a palpable sense of the animals’ killer instinct. In the film’s most compelling chase sequence, the camera soars over the snow-blanketed grassland to capturing the startling speed and superior intelligence of the wolves as they advance on the gazelles and force them onto a frozen lake.
Chen, Yang and Bilig’s son Batar are entrusted by production-unit cadre Bao Shungui (Yin Zhusheng) to tend a stable of horses bred for the PLA cavalry. To protect the horses and other livestock, Bao gives orders to raid the wolves’ lairs and kill all their cubs, but Chen rescues a cub and secretly raises it. The Chinese greed and disregard for the laws of the grassland provoke the beasts into vicious retaliation, in another pulsating setpiece that trounces many an action scene in war or martial-arts films: an unflinchingly brutal struggle involving wolves, horses, sheep, dogs and humans.
Elsewhere, however, the tension falters as “Wolf Totem” gets bogged down by its dull dramatization of the friction between human society and the animal kingdom. Lamenting the destruction of the Mongolians’ traditional way of life by Bao’s ignorant, hardline party policies and the Chinese settlers’ plundering of natural resources, Annaud brings no new perspective to environmental themes long expounded on in the West. He also swerves from what really stirs interest here — the dynamics of the wolves, explored in his usual penetrating ethnographic detail. Moreover, since the screenplay has considerably softened the devastation described by the author with such hand-wringing alarm, the final confrontation between man and beast doesn’t attain the level of tragic grandeur intended.
In Jiang’s novel, the protag develops a life-long obsession with wolves, which makes him ponder questions of racial character and historical destiny. As Bilig explained, Genghis Khan devised his battle strategies by studying wolves’ hunting tactics, and like these lone rangers, the Mongolians would rather have died fighting than be fettered or sedated. This maverick spirit is hailed by Chen, the author’s alter ego, in contrast with the docile “sheep” mentality of the Chinese, who evolved from an agrarian society. But this thought-provoking cultural-political subtext largely fades from the film, which depicts Chen’s intellectual research on wolves as mere doting affection for a pet a la “Born Free.”
Character development has never been Annaud’s forte; humans pale in the company of such majestic beasts. Feng, a seasoned actor, turns in a convincing performance as the naive but warm-hearted Chen, but even he fails to develop much emotion heft. The possibility of romance between Chen and Bilig’s daughter-in-law, Gasma (Ankhnyam Ragchaa), arrives late in the film and is too muted to engage, while there’s little sense of camaraderie or rapport between Chen and Yang, who is pushed so far to the story’s periphery as to seem almost gratuitous by his presence at all.
The production reportedly took three years so that the wolves could be trained from the cub stage, and they exert a mysterious, hypnotic collective presence. However, unlike the tigers in “Two Brothers” or the cub and the grizzly in “The Bear,” they display no distinct traits individually; even the cub Chen raises is no more than a cuddly, furry bundle.
Craft contributions are superb, especially CG effects of the animals in motion, thanks to the fleet of VFX companies deployed (including Piximondo). The spectacular locations are brought to life by Dreujou’s meticulous widescreen compositions, while James Horner’s score, which provides strong emotional sweep in the non-dialogue scenes, risks being overwrought elsewhere.