'Wolf Totem' Review: Gorgeous Scenery, Impressive Wolves but No Drama

This attempt to say something about the struggle between humans and wild animals is too bombastic and unfeeling.

The French director Jean-Jacques Annaud has been a somewhat anomalous phenomenon in the cinematic landscape since the 1970s. The monumental style with which he portrays subjects of an unusual, sometimes exotic character create the feeling that he is directing “film events.” His pictures are filled with splendor, but hardly burst with emotion.

Almost the only instance in which Annaud created an effective drama from his materials was his 1986 production of “The Name of the Rose,” the film that gained him international recognition. Yet it, too, suffered from a certain bombast. Other movies of his that stirred interest, such as “The Bear” (1988), “The Lover” (1992), “Seven Years in Tibet” (1997) and “Enemy at the Gates” (2001) seemed to me sumptuous but hollow, aspiring to make a statement, but backing away from it in favor of the exterior wrapping.

In some senses, “Wolf Totem” is one of Annaud’s gentlest movies to date. Even if it contains several cruel scenes, it possesses narrative elements that sweep the viewer into it and make it worth seeing. Nevertheless, it displays the same shortcomings that have flawed most of this director’s work. The landscapes are gorgeous, the wolves are impressive, but what’s missing is the drama that should have stemmed from the encounter between the characters, and between them and the nature around them and the wolves that inhabit it.

Based on the bestselling novel of the same title by Jiang Rong (the pseudonym of Lü Jiamin), the film is set in China in 1967, in the second year of the Cultural Revolution fomented by Mao Zedong. Possibly because Chinese producers commissioned Annaud to direct the book’s film version – quite ironic, given the fact that “Seven Years in Tibet” is banned in China – the movie hardly refers to that dark chapter in modern Chinese history. It is invoked only at the start of the story, through a local functionary of the government whose treatment in the film is critical, but not particularly severe. (This character reappears later in the movie.)

Feng Shaofeng as Chen, with a wolf cub in a scene from 'Wolf Totem.'
Courtesy

Two students, Chen (Feng Shaofeng) and Yang (Shawn Dou) are ordered by the government to go to the northern Mongolian steppes in order to teach Mandarin to the children there. Several peculiar elements mark this narrative point of departure. For example, it’s not clear whether the mission, which was forced on the students and cut them off from family and friends, causes them distress: they appear to be intensely curious and enthusiastic when they reach their destination. Second, though Yang remains a presence in the film, the plot ignores him and his story almost completely. And third, if the two went all the way to northern Mongolia to teach Mandarin, why is there not even one scene that shows them doing that? In fact, it’s not entirely clear what they are doing in the region to which they have been sent other than to learn about it, its ways of life and the dangers facing it.

A story void of meaning

The movie depicts the local inhabitants’ confrontation with the many wolves in the area, which threaten both the people and the sheep that are their main source of livelihood. There’s the stock character in this type of film, of the elderly, wise leader (Basen Zhabu). He is cautious in dealing with the wolves, in order not to upset the balance of nature. He believes that if, as the government wishes, an attempt is made to perpetrate a mass slaughter of the wolves, they will take reprisal actions against the residents.

Chen saves a wolf cub and hides it from the locals, ostensibly to discover through it the essence of a wolf’s character. To the film’s credit, it does not depict the bond that is formed as one with a cuddly baby animal. The portrayal is factual, even dry. The problem is that Chen’s character lacks substance, despite the charm displayed by Feng Shaofeng, who plays him. The result is that the bond that’s formed becomes a story void of true meaning. And yes, there is also a charming young woman (Ankhnyam Ragchaa), whose smile could adorn any poster promoting tourism to Mongolia. But that’s her only role in the movie – to be a charming young woman – because without charming young women there is no cinema.

Annaud undoubtedly believed that the ecological aspect of “Wolf Totem” would accord the picture fashionable relevance. But even if the movie touches on that theme, ultimately it floats above it. If there is one memory that stays in the mind from the film, it’s the sight of the wolves’ penetrating gaze. It seems to conceal worlds in which whatever is human is pushed to the margins.

Wolf Totem Directed by Jean-Jacques Annaud; written by Jean-Jacques Annaud, Alain Godard, John Collee, Lu Wei; with Feng Shaofeng, Shawn Dou, Basen Zhabu, Ankhnyam Ragchaa