Chen Zhen (Feng Shaofeng) with a pup in Wolf Totem (Allstar/Mars Distribution)
Both Chinese and American audiences are going to find much to enjoy about Wolf Totem, but it seems likely that those two audiences will interpret the film very differently. Chinese audiences are going to root for the young college student and his compatriots, but Americans might just be rooting for the wolves. This won’t necessarily be because of animosity for the Chinese , since anyone that xenophobic would never see a Chinese-language film in the first place, or because of any sense of jingoism by Chinese audiences cheering out of misplaced fondness for Mao’s Cultural Revolution. It is simply because Americans will always take the side of puppies, no matter how untamed they behave or how sharp their fangs.
This is, perhaps, as it should be. The wolves portrayed in Wolf Totem are glorious creatures, and even at their most fearsome, director Jean-Jacques Annaud never shows them as anything less than majestic. This is a film that revels in the beauty of the wolves, even when they are shown menacing the farm animals of the Mongolian tribe that the young hero of the film, Chen Zhen (Feng Shaofeng), is sent to help modernize. Even the very fact that the wolves are portrayed as cunning adds to their wonder. These are pack animals with the keen sense to collaborate, to wish to rescue their young and to outsmart the grassland tribes when the pack is threatened.
As one could expect from a film by Annaud, Wolf Totem demonstrates a consistent painterly touch enhanced by the vast landscapes of the Mongolian grasslands. This is not the first excursion that the French director has made to Asia, considering his best known work Seven Years in Tibet as well as his Cambodian-set Two Brothers from 2004, but it may be his most beautiful. The director employs 3D technology sparingly but effectively; it is just enough for audiences to immerse themselves in the film without having to drown in it.
Annaud’s strengths are so heavily weighted toward the visual that they often subsume the characters in his films. However competent Brad Pitt may have been in Seven Years in Tibet or Jude Law in Enemy at the Gates, nothing that either actor could have done could outshine the Tibetan landscapes of the former or the World War II battlefields of the latter. Wolf Totem does not have this problem, since the film focuses primarily on archetypes as a means to show off the wolves. This is not to criticize the actors, who are uniformly fine, but their characters fill established roles (the innocent growing up, the wise elder, the comic relief) in service to the wolves who are the true stars.
Annaud resists any attempt to give the wolves distinctly human personalities, but nonetheless makes them sympathetic creatures. As a warning to viewers, there are several scenes featuring the deaths of wolf puppies, although none of these scenes are graphic. This may be the incontrovertible proof that Americans will always take the side of dogs, whether domesticated or not; audiences are immune to all sorts of violence toward humans in film and even occasionally revel in it, but scenes of animal cruelty require steeper warnings than an Ivy League gender studies seminar.
There may not be much that is novel about Wolf Totem, but getting to watch the feats of animals like the ones in this film has a long history throughout the American film industry. Hollywood folklore even tells how the German Shepherd Rin Tin Tin nearly won the first Academy Award for Best Actor. The director may be French, the characters Chinese and the setting Mongolian, but the way that the film lavishes attentions on adorable wolf puppies and the noble creatures that they become makes Wolf Totem seem as American as apple pie.
In theaters Sept. 11
Films are rated on a scale of 5 stars (must-see), 4 stars (exceptional), 3 stars (solid), 2 stars (average) and 1 star (unworthy).