Nothing to howl about

By Liao Danlin Source:Global Times Published: 2015-2-26 22:38:02

Jean-Jacques Annaud’s ‘Wolf Totem’ lacks bite

Poster for Wolf Totem Photo: CFP

A scene from Wolf Totem starring Feng Shaofeng (L) Photo: CFP

The long waited adaptation of the acclaimed novel Wolf Totem, directed by French director Jean-Jacques Annaud, finally hit cinema over the Lunar New Year holidays.

So far the film has generated over 297 million yuan ($47 million) in box-office revenue in just seven days. 

Scenes from the grasslands

Many Chinese audiences know Annaud from The Lover, an adaptation of French novelist Marguerite Duras' L'amant. Casting Hong Kong actor Tony Leung, the film, famous for the exquisite and emotional portrayal of the romantic and sexual relationship between a Chinese man and a young French girl was viewed as a must-see film for art film lovers.

Annaud is known for excelling at filming exotic culture and lifestyles. The Lover was shot in Vietnam while his Oscar-winning film Black and White in Color was filmed in Africa. For many moviegoers, the chance to experience the beautiful scenery of Inner Mongolia as well as ethnic Mongolian life through the eyes of Annaud was one of the aspects that made Wolf Totem so attractive.

Through the combination of documentary-like realistic styled long shots and some dramatic close-ups, the director creates an intense atmosphere throughout the entire film.

Additionally, the production team spent seven years training the Mongolian wolves that appear in the film. This hard work paid off as the intimate close-ups of the wolves waiting to hunt or observing their enemies were all vividly eye-catching.

Wolf Totem tells a story of an educated young man from Beijing who volunteers to live in a region on the border of China and Mongolia in the late 1960s during the Cultural Revolution (1966-76).

During his two-year experience in the grasslands dealing with wild creatures, tough weather and learning about traditional nomadic beliefs, the leading character Chen Zhen learns about the struggle between humans and nature and the conflicts that arise between traditional prairie lifestyles and modern Han Chinese culture.

Coming to nurse a wolf pup, Chen also develops complicated feelings towards the young wolf - a relationship that seems to have been particularly difficult for Annaud to represent.

In the director's previous films The Bear (1988) and Two Brothers (2004), the director's strength lay in his portrayal of the wild animals that played all the leading roles. However, Wolf Totem is more about the relationship between human beings and wolves, and as a result, while scenes that only feature animals, such as ones showing wolves hunting Mongolian gazelle or attacking horses are intense and epic, the parts of the film involving people are less interesting and carry less emotional impact.

For instance, throughout the film, local residents continue to mention Tengri, the God of the Grasslands.

"We don't bury our dead. We eat a lot of meat when we are alive so we can give back our bodies to the land when we die," says one tribal elder explaining why they leave their dead to be eaten by wild animals. 

This wisdom from local elderly people, as well as their history, religion and cultural differences are mentioned in passing, but are never presented in-depth.

Lacking an emotional connection

Welsh writer and philosopher Mark Rowlands once wrote a book called The Philosopher And the Wolf: Lessons From the Wild on Love, Death And Happiness. In the book, the author talks about the relationship he developed with an adopted wolf pup and their daily lives together, and looks to share his passion for this animal with others.

The author of the novel Wolf Totem, Jiang Rong, wrote about wolves for a similar reason: He was attracted by the nature of these wild beasts and wanted to share this with readers.

Unfortunately, in the film, Chen's love at first sight relationship with the region's wolves doesn't come across as convincing.

In Life of Pi, a film that talks about religion and prominently features a wild animal, it was the fear and the day and night presence of the wild tiger that made the lead character to built up a love and hate relationship with his wild co-passenger. By building up a believable relationship between the two, when the tiger leaves in the end, it feels like a huge loss for the character and the audience as well.

Throughout the film, I found myself constantly expecting the protagonist, Chen Zhen, a young man who escaped from the political struggles in Beijing to find himself both an outsider and insider in Inner Mongolia, to develop a similar believable relationship with the region. He becomes fascinated with the culture, lifestyles and especially the mysterious wolves in this place. However, the portrait of Chen's emotion connection to the land, the wolves and other characters  just doesn't come across clear or strong enough.

Actor Feng Shaofeng contributes the best performance I've seen from him so far, but it was still far from what was needed to leave a memorable impression on audiences.

Scattered focus

The 2004 novel, which Jiang claims to be a semi-autobiography, is a popular work which has been translated into more than 30 languages and published in over 110 countries and regions. As such fans had high expectations for the adaptation

Although the script has been accredited to several writers, Chinese scriptwriter Lu Wei began working on the script for the film in 2009.

Lu is considered one of the best script writers in China and has worked with many of China's Fifth Generation directors and produced famous works such as Farewell My Concubine, To Live and Tuya's Marriage.

The results of his work, however, have turned out to be less than satisfying.

An expected emotional climax never appeared nor did any of the issues about man's impact on the local ecology, a theme that was an important part of the original work.

While Wolf Totem has certainly been one of the best received films during the Spring Festival season, with such talented figures like Annaud and Lu involved I just expected more.

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