In 1967, a young Beijing student, Chen Zhen, is sent to live among the nomadic herdsmen of Inner Mongolia. Caught between the advance of civilization from the south and the nomads' traditional enemies - the marauding wolves - to the north; humans and animals, residents and invaders alike, struggle to find their true place in the world.Written by
human vs. nature, simply within ecological parameters
French filmmaker Jean-Jacques Annaud's China-France co-production is his third enterprise tackling with human-animal equilibrium, after THE BEAR (1988) and TWO BROTHERS (2004), WOLF TOTEM is adapted from a popular semi-autobiographical Chinese novel of the same title and is shot in the majestic Inner Mongolian steppe.
During China's Cultural Revolution, in 1969, two students from Beijing, Chen Zhen (Feng) and Yang Ke (Dou) are assigned to the steppe to teach local Mongolian nomads Mandarin and smooth the process of cultural integration. They are under the aegis of Bilig (Mijid), the head of the nomads, a sage mind who inculcates them the precept of the balanced co-existence between mankind and indigenous wolves. But, a pervading human force of greed and self-seeking would soon disrupt the well-maintained balance, wolves are deprived of their sustenance and during one blizzard night, driven by hunger, they attack a horde of horses and result in great casualty, including Bilig's son (although it is an accident). Retaliation is conducted under the command of an apparatchik (Yin), many wolf cubs are perished for the sake of their skins, but Chen saves one cub, secretly raises it like a pet and attachment grows. As often, one considers him or herself doing a good deed would only realise later in the stage it is a mistake, domesticating a feral wolf isn't something worth commending, and it is noteworthy that Annaud doesn't vindicate Chen's behavior by stating that the cub is bereft or in somewhat danger, Chen's behavior is solely out of his own soft spot, with no regard of the consequence for the cub itself, only after Bilig's sensible advice, Chen would right his wrongs to prepare and train the young wolf for its return to its natural territory, and one should remember, it is always a rookie mistake trying to extract a trickle of humanity out of the wild creatures, mutual connection might be able to achieved, but don't belabor yourself with any illusions of any reciprocal gestures.
The stand-off between humans and wolves will reach its heroic climax after the ravenous wolf pack assails a sheep corral during one night and this time, the entire pack is almost being extirpated by bullets and unrelieved vehicle chase, witnessed powerlessly for Chen, if anything, powerless is the omnipresent feeling, wherever humans tread, there are black sheep undermining the natural grandeur and harmony, disasters are bound to ensue, a central message cannot be dissipated by the film's lugubriously concocted positive vibe in the end. It is a big relief Annaud doesn't settle for facile wishful-thinking or radical aggression in its tonality, so that the film manage to retain an organic slant which conforms with his previous similar oeuvres.
The striking animal stunts orchestrated by dexterous trainer Andrew Simpson greatly hone up the set pieces, especially against its ferocious surroundings (the scenes of frozen animal corpses are manifestations of the primordial power of nature), and it goes without saying the film is a continuous landscape-porn (plus two emphatic examples of cloudscape), although sometimes its immaculateness unfittingly instigates the suspicion of an overachieved CGI-preening during the post-production.
The human cast understandably takes a back seat from its awe-inspiring canine counterpart, but the dialogues sound clunky to a Chinese ear, and the character development barely exists, since when Chen and Gasma (Ragchaa), the widow and daughter-in-law of Bilig, become an item? The emphasis is so top-heavy on Chen and his wolf cub, which makes the romantic subplot comes off as abrupt and fluffy. In the main, WOLF TOTEM doesn't shortchange its forte: the spectacular vista and pulsating action sequences, and it also circumspectly bypasses the sensitive political agenda (the film was a mammoth box-office player two years ago during the golden spell of Chinese Spring Festival) and allows the story itself to stimulate reflections on a broader picture: human vs. nature, simply within ecological parameters.
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