Wolf Totem

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Robin Clifford of Reeling Reviews
Robin Clifford 
Wolf Totem
Laura Clifford of Reeling Reviews
Laura Clifford 

In 1967, at the height of the Cultural Revolution in China, a young student, Chen Zhen (Shaofeng Feng), is sent to Inner Mongolia to live with, and bring the Communist doctrine to, the nomadic herdsmen. The young man finds himself in the middle of the battle between traditional life of the nomads and the onslaught of civilization, and marauding wolves, in Wolf Totem.”

Director Jean-Jacques Annaud is no stranger working with wild animals. His award winning “The Bear” he made Bart the Bear anthropomorphic hero. His 2004 “Two Brothers” introduces a pair of tiger cubs, one gentle the other fierce, separated while young only to come together to fight to the death for the entertainment of men gambling. With “Wolf Totem,” he teams with John Collee, Alain Godard and Lu Wei to adapt the epic novel of the title by Jiang Rong, based on the author’s own life.

The film begins with Chen Zhen and Yang Ke (Shawn Dou) being assigned to bring the Communist revolution to the nomads in the far northern hinterland of Inner Mongolia. Zhen, in particular, is taken by the harsh beauty of the land and the resilience and intelligence of the sheep and horse-herding nomads. They are there to “educate” the locals to the dictates of Mao’s Little Red Book but are the ones who are educated by the locals.

Chen, while riding alone across the vast land, is confronted by a pack of hungry wolves and must think quickly to survive. He does and a new-found understanding of the land and the wolves prompts him to perform an experiment: capture a wolf cub and raise it – right next to the nomads’ sheep herd. His decision is controversial and Chen must defend his experiment.

This where the film finds its true meaning – the encroaching “civilization” on the untarnished land where the nomadic tribes have live with their traditions for centuries. Man versus land, modern culture versus traditional, the destruction of the environment (a real problem in today’s China) versus the preservation of it are all part of Annaud’s statement – guess which side he is on.

The story (the novel was banned upon its publication in 2004) is critical of how the Chinese Communist government made its misguided attempt to bring the revolution to the people. Instead, it helped to drive China and its people to the brink of economic ruin. That the author tells his own story and Annaud brings it to the big screen – in 3D IMAX no less – is no small feat.

The production took place over seven long years and the making of the film could, and should, be material for a documentary, especially the three years that wolf wrangler Andrew Simpson spent preparing his pack for the oft arduous production. The estimated $38 million cost of the film, a fraction of what it would cost in Hollywood for a project of this scope and depth, is entirely up there on the big screen (where, I recommend, you see this film). Cinematographer Jean-Marie Dreujou captures the rugged beauty of the Mongolian steppe with beautiful panoramas and uses the 3D to good effect in the closer shots of people and animals.

Be warned, a good portion of the stark beauty of the film is disturbing with its depiction of the violence that is life on those vast plains. Annaud and company make a bold environmental statement cloaked in a personal story of one young man’s personal growth, change and awareness. There is a lot going on in “Wolf Totem” and all of it is good. It also, sadly, is one of the very last scores from music maestro James Horner and it is beautiful. I give it an A-.

The 3D blu ray:

Under-viewed by the world when it was briefly released in theaters earlier this year, “Wolf Totem” gets the 3D Blu-ray treatment and gives said world a chance to make up for this injustice. The real treat of the Blu-ray is the stunning 3D presentation, enhancing the beautiful photography of the Mongol steppes by Jean-Marie Dreujou. I am not a big fan of 3D in theaters – it gives me a headache, usually – but on a good home theater it is a must to watch it in that format, making a magnificent-looking film more so.

The 3D Blu-ray package is short on extras with just four featurettes – “The Nature of the Wolf”  gets up close and personal with the film’s canine stars and their handler Andrew Simpson (who brought all of his lupine actors back to Canada after the shoot – they are available for work); “The Director” with Jean-Jacques Annaud waxing eloquent on the film, his crew and his actors, human and non; “The Cast” introduces the actors, professional and amateur; “Environmentally Friendly” shows how the filmmakers took great pains to leave the land as they found it before the production team arrived at the Inner Mongolia location.

The extras may be sparse on the Blu-ray set but what we get is informative and entertaining and a good compliment to an extraordinary film and story. I give the package an A-.

In 1967, students Chen Zhen (Shaofeng Feng) and his friend Yang Ke (Shawn Dou, "The Flowers of War") volunteered to go from Beijing to Inner Mongolia during the Chinese Cultural Revolution.  Chen would find himself caught between Bilig (Basen Zhabu, "Red Cliff"), the old grasslander who understands the balance of nature, and Bao Shunghi (Yin Zhusheng, "Drug War"), the group's Communist leader tasked with obeying orders at the "Wolf Totem."

Cowriter (with "Happy Feet's" John Collee, "Two Brothers's" Alain Godard and Lu Wei)/director Jean-Jacques Annaud has made films like "Enemy at the Gates," but he is perhaps best known for his animal-centric films "The Bear" and "Two Brothers."   In adapting Jiang Rong's autobiographical novel, Annaud straddles the worlds of human politics and the beasts they coexist with and exploit in his most stunning film to date.  Presented in IMAX 3D, there are scenes in this film that are literally breathtaking when they are not capturing or breaking the heart.  The story itself feels like it has been scaled back to its 121 minute running time, some characters given short shrift, some events presented choppily, but the overall effect of Annaud's film make these minor bumps in the road.

The bus of Beijing Communists traveling through the open plains is greeted by migrational herders on horseback, smiling at the new arrivals, unaware of what their arrival will mean to Tenggar, the spirit who brings life and death.  Chen immediately takes to the lifestyle, reading at night to Bilig and Bilig's beautiful daughter-in-law Gasma (Ankhnyam Rachaa). Chen is mesmerized by the Mongolian wolves whom the grasslanders treat with respect, sharing the wolves' gazelle kills sparingly so that they will not attack their sheep.  When Bao demands that the wolves' cubs be killed, Bilig objects, stating that this will cause the animals to seek vengeance, but the order must be carried out.  In his naivety, Chen rescues a cub, calling it Little Wolf, hiding it from both Bao and their sheep herding hosts.

When Little Wolf is discovered, Bilig is furious with Chen, believing he is dishonoring the wolf by denying its natural heritage, but Bao approves his 'experiment.' The situation worsens when other relocated outsiders steal the remainder of the wolves' frozen gazelle store.  Bilig's warning is proved tragically when a disorienting snowstorm comes in and the Chinese Army's horses, entrusted to his son Batu (Baoyingexige), are attacked.  This nighttime scene is extraordinary, glimpses of action scene by the casting of flashlight beams, as wolves gain on horses's haunches amidst swirling snow.  Batu loses his life trying to protect them, widowing Gasma and leaving their son without a father.  The aftermath is both stunning and horrific, a true-to-life twist on Guy Maddin's frozen horses of "My Winnipeg."

"Wolf Totem" presents one glorious scene after another (the totem of the title is a whole skinned wolf, fluttering in the air like a lupine wind sock on the run).  Shot in 3D and using drone technology, Annaud navigates both grand landscapes and the intimacy of yurts and wolf cub caves.  While special effects were used to remove riders during the horses and wolves segment, no CGI was used to recreate the animals, wolf trainer Andrew Simpson raising the animals used in the film, a total of 50 trainers and handlers needed for the sheep, horses and dogs.  While many animals are 'killed' in the movie, Annaud spares sensitive eyes, at least until the last act's final hunt.  Composer James Horner, who died in a plane crash earlier this year, provided the type of orchestral score which can be overbearing, but suits this film's majesty.

Columbia Pictures/Sony is inexplicably releasing "Wolf Totem" into only 100 theaters. In Boston, only AMC 'Fauxmax' screens will get the film.  This one will probably not be in theaters long, but really deserves to be seen on the big screen.  It has much to say about environmentalism and Annaud has honored the book with his best film to date.

("Wolf Totem" was deemed ineligible as China's submission for the Foreign Language Oscar for 2015.)

Grade:  B+

The 3D blu ray:

It always amazes me how much better 3D looks on a good Smart TV than it does in the theater. Although its stunning widescreen landscapes deserves a big screen, "Wolf Totem" is no exception. The colors are rich, the images sharp, the effect immersive. This film didn't get much of a theatrical run, at least in the U.S., and it is a movie well worth catching up on.  The storm scene is one of the most magnificent of 2015.

There are four extras included on the disc.  The first, The Director's Adventure, begins by noting Annaud's animal-heavy filmography before giving us a glimpse of how he works. The man appears to be a joy to be around.  The Cast is the least essential supplement, the most prominent actors merely giving us a run down of their characters in the film.  Saving the Environment spends a brief amount of time on the importance of the eco-system within the story before illustrating the great lengths the filmmakers went to to preserve the grasslands where they shot.  Most impressive is the fourth, Nature of the Wolf, where we learn four years were spent raising three generations of wolves trained to be unafraid of humans and to hit their marks.  Trainer Andrew Simpson is not only quite ingenious - he spread movie blood scented to attract the wolves out so they would roll in it, essentially applying their own makeup - he has a real love for these animals.  Every one was taken home from China to Canada where they are in semi-retirement, but Simpson's quick to remind all that they are looking for work!

This Sony Pictures Home Entertainment release would make a great gift for anyone who loves history, world culture, the environment, animals and, of course, movies!
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