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    Wolf Totem (2015): Movie Review

    "A supposedly thought-provoking film but only manages to be visually pleasing.” 

    It is man versus nature in Wolf Totem, a Mandarin- and Mongolian- language feature from French film-maker Jean-Jacques Arnaud. Based on Jiang Rong’s 2004 highly-acclaimed and best-selling eponymous semi-autobiographical novel, the film explores how a young man’s social, political and ecological viewpoints are changed by a nameless little cub.

    It is 1967, the second year of the Cultural Revolution, and Chen Zhen (Feng Shaofeng) and Yang Ke (Shawn Dou), two bright students from Beijing, are sent to the steppes of the northernmost province of Inner Mongolia to teach the children of local nomads on how to write and read in Chinese. Time passes and the two, especially Chen, learns more from the locals than they do from them. After being cornered and spared by wolves while travelling alone, Chen becomes more fascinated with the lupine creatures. Bilig (Basen Zhabu), the gray-bearded sagacious Mongolian chief who favors Chen, imparts his knowledge about the wolves, especially their importance in keeping the ecosystem in harmony.

    The village men, as ordered by bespectacled officer Bao Shunghi (Yin Zusheng), are tending a stable of horses for the People’s Liberation Army. Wolves are threats to the horses and Bao informs the community about another official Party order – to kill the wolves’ pups in spring time. Despite Bilig’s objection, the order is carried out and the village people are all over the valley slaughtering the cubs. However, Chen’s sweet nature takes over him and instead of killing a cub he found, he secretly adopts it and keeps it in his yurt.

    Rich with breathtaking natural vistas and remarkable action set pieces, Wolf Totem is an eye-pleasing movie. Aside from beautifully capturing the nomadic bucolic life in early Mongolia, it excels in staging stunning action sequences, particularly those involving the wolves. They are like untamed moments in National Geographic wildlife documentaries, only more pulse-pounding and deeply engaging. The use of minimal light and overhead shots further intensifies the scenes, giving more realistic and convincing depiction. Perhaps, the night-time chase between horses and wolves while a snowstorm rages on is the film’s most winning moment. It is passionately shot and irresistibly engrossing. By the next day, animal carcasses stood frozen in a lake and shots are once again dramatic. There is also abundance of close-ups and low camera angles that adds more suspense and danger to the wolves.

    However, the film is only a visual stunner as it does not delve deeply into its narrative, falling short in offering inspiring people or profound messages. As emotional highlight is focused on the animals, there is poor character development and even its lead figure, Chen, remains bland and unmotivated at the end of the movie. It struggles to establish more subterranean connection between Chen and the locals, and even between him and his baby cub. Thus, the final act is not as tragic or uplifting as it should have been. The romantic arc between Chen and Gasma (Ankhnyam Ragchaa) is also forced and obligatory; but then again, there is not enough emotional investment that audience will simply not care about them.

    The movie is filled with nested metaphors and undertones but it is too anxious to clear the muddle. Perhaps, it is because its underlying ecological, social and political messages have grave contemporary resonance. While the Mongols treasure their humble primitive lifestyle, the Han Chinese takes over and introduces their own methods. While there is a subtle ill-treatment of the Mongolian population, there is also obvious Chinese voracity (fur are priced commodities) and disregard of the ecosystem, resulting to degradation of the environment and nature’s retaliation. In the process, there is destruction of both Mongolian traditions and natural resources.

    In essence, the film is truly about Chen, his cub and their growth together. As much as the little wolf becomes a stranger to the pack, Chen is also an outsider to the community. Yet, over time, he develops some sort of political and emotional maturity and learns to grasp how things work in life. In setting free his wolf, he also resigns to existing orders and embraces the laws ruling the land. 

    Wolf Totem offers nothing but an exhilarating audiovisual experience. Its narrative is problematic as its murky messages do not penetrate too deeply. It’s beautiful but forgettable. 

    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, Tumenbayar, Xilindule, Bao Hailong 
    Director: Jean-Jacques Annaud 
    Screenplay: Jean-Jacques Annaud, Alain Godard, Lu Wei, John Collee 
    Producers: La Peikang, Xavier Castano, Jean-Jacques Annaud, Bill Kong 
    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


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