February 19 marked the release of two very different films: the smart pilot drama Triumph in the Sky and the tired environmental allegory that is Wolf Totem.
Based on the 2004 novel by Jiang Rong, Wolf Totem is a fanciful semi-autobiographic work that draws on Jiang’s volunteer experiences in Inner Mongolia from 1967 to 1978. The highly anticipated film adaptation marked the return of Jean-Jacques Annaud to China after years spent on a blacklist.
But Chinese films based on books have been ill fated as of late, and Wolf Totem is no exception.
Readers were unanimous in their conclusion that the most qualified actors on the screen were the wolves.
While the book blends history and culture with fiction to tell a powerful political story, the film throws that message under the bus to cast Wolf Totem in an environmental mold that was old even in the 1990s.
Viewers expecting to be touched by the powerful spirit of the Mongolian nomads and their almost religious devotion to their homeland and tradition should look elsewhere.
It’s a shame that Annaud’s film bent an otherwise touching story into a documentary about wolf conservation. But it’s hard to expect more from a foreign director who is even more clueless about Mongolian culture than he is about China.
The film was panned by both viewers who read the book and viewers who were experiencing Wolf Totem for the first time. Many criticized it for its spineless refusal to take a stance on the greedy spirit of the wolf.
It also shows a tortured understanding of how the Mongolians of northern China relate to wolves. Annaud is not to blame for this shortcoming: Jiang made the same mistake. While Mongolians may respect the wolf as master of the steppe, they do not bow before it: they fight and kill wolves when they dare to attack.
The film also has a hard time identifying the separation between nomadic herdsmen and steppe farmers. The only themes left involved the relationship between human and wolves.
Worse yet was the oh-so-foreign assumption that all Asians look alike. The stars Feng Shaofeng and Dou Xiao bore absolutely no resemblance to the robust men of the Mongolian steppe, even made up in something akin to redface.
That’s not to say the film is entirely without value.
Compared to the subpar leading men, the co-stars – who actually were Mongolian – received praise for both their appearance and strong characterization.
The furry stars were equally adept. Wolf Totem’s film crew kept and trained their wolves for five years to prepare the animals for the film. The visual effect of using real wolves was incredibly impressive compared to the many films that attempt to doctor other breeds or use CG to stand in for wild canines.