Somewhere between Planet Earth and a historical drama lies Wolf Totem, a sweeping Chinese epic from French director Jean-Jacques Annaud. Taking place in the throes of Communist fervor in 1967 China, the film traces the journey of a young man from Beijing discovering the natural, spiritual mysteries of Inner Mongolia. The lessons that he learns about conservation and wildlife are ones that ring true even today.
Based on the smash hit 2004 novel by Jiang Rong, the story follows Chen Zhen (Feng Shaofeng) and Yang Ke (Shawn Dou), two eager young men from the big city who find themselves in Mongolia, living with a nomadic tribe of sheep herders, a long way from home. But they’re surprised to find that this place feels more like home for them, melding quickly into the lifestyle of a shepherd, living in a yurt, galloping their horses along the Technicolor green plains.
After a dangerous experience wandering off the path, Chen Zhen quickly becomes enamored of the packs of wolves with whom the nomads share their land. They have a symbiotic relationship, sharing food, and resources, and the nomads have a deep spiritual respect for the power of the wolves – as they should.
As industrial forces rumble into the land, looking to exploit resources for the greater good of the republic, the delicate balance is upset and all-out war breaks out between the wolves and humans. Complicating matters is Chen Zhen’s puppy, Little Wolf, a cub that he secreted away from a den in hopes of raising on his own.
As cultures clash, the mighty wolves have to contend with forces far greater than they are – guns, jeeps and mass destruction. But can the city folk learn to live with the wolves in common understanding and respect?
The greatest aspect of Wolf Totem is the gorgeous, sweeping cinematography that captures the landscape in breathtaking aerial shots and crystal clear color. If you spring for the IMAX and 3D experience, it’s even more immersive and crisp, though there isn’t much in the way of 3D action. There is one jaw-dropping action scene, a blizzard stampede of horses with wolves in hot pursuit that is genuinely awe-inspiring. It’s also a chance to experience some of the last work of late, great composer James Horner, who lends his talents to the score, which utilizes a traditional Chinese music.
The story has its touching moments but dissolves into disjointed melodrama in the back half of the film. The attempted eradication of the wolves is so heartbreaking that the explosions, attacks and illness that befall our characters feel over the top in comparison. There is more than enough heartstring-tugging and drama to go around, so the pile-on is unnecessary.
Still, Feng’s performance as the young student evolving and growing up in front of our eyes is a compelling one, as well as his relationship with Little Wolf (though it often seems that he needs some training himself). The message contained herein is a powerful one, stressing the idea that the only way to live is to live together. It’s a concept we could still stand to ponder.
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Director: Jean-Jacques Annand
Cast: Feng Shaofeng, Shawn Dou, Yin Zhusheng, Ba Sen Zha Bu
Rated: PG-13 (disturbing images and violence involving animals, and for brief sexuality)
Running time: 121 min.