The background to Jean-Jacques Annaud’s Wolf Totem could be a film in and of itself.
Formerly banned from China for Seven Years in Tibet, Annaud was approached by Chinese directors to adapt Jiang Rong’s best-selling semi-autobiography for cinema, given his expertise with animals in The Bear and Two Brothers. Thirty socialised Mongolian wolves later, and China has submitted Wolf Totem for a Best Foreign Language Film Academy Award. But does it deserve acclaim for its portrayal of wolves?
From its opening shot of a wolf and moon rising together, the film paints the animal as a force of nature that’s both beautiful and unforgiving, an impression also received by main character Chen Zen. Sent to “educate the nomads” in Mongolia during the Chinese Cultural Revolution, the Chinese student soon finds his perception of faith, livelihood and of course wolves irrevocably changed. Initially afraid of the pack, he bears witness to and understands its key role in the grassland with the aid of village elder Bilig and a captured wolf cub.
However, all is not well among the cartoonishly colourful grasses and blazing blue skies. When the wolves’ “winter larder” is stolen, leaving them starving, and their cubs are culled by the nomads, the pack brutally retaliates against the livestock. As for the nomads, they begin to see their home and culture fade away as the Chinese authorities increase farming efforts due to a countrywide famine.
For his part, Chen Zen is conflicted by keeping a wolf cub captive while its wild relatives are persecuted. The Mongolian nomads and wolves are both victims and warriors driven out by the advance of the Chinese Cultural Revolution, the implication being that we have lost our link with nature, which while brutal, maintains a healthy ecological balance. Taking a more positive diversion from the book (reviewed in Wolf Print issue #55), the film offers a glimmer of hope for the future, highlighting that changing just one life for the better can make a difference.
Although they serve as a backdrop to Chen Zen’s transformation – and the wolf cub is merely a side character – the wolves, stunning cinematography and noble score by the late great James Horner steal the show. This is a story where wolves are amoral and spiritual rather than either holy or hellish, their importance to the landscape is tragically undermined, and, thanks to one person, it is a cautionary tale where all is not necessarily lost.