Wolf Totem

Wolf Totem
Director: Jean-Jacques Annaud
Screenplay: Alain Godard & Jean-Jacques Annaud & Lu Wei & John Collee (based on the novel by Jiang Rong)
Stars: Shaofeng Feng (Chen Zhen), Shawn Dou (Yang Ke), Ankhnyam Ragchaa (Gasma), Yin Zhusheng (Bao Shunghi), Ba Sen Zha Bu (Bilig), Baoyingexige (Batu), Tumenbayaer (Shartseren), Xilindule (Petit Bayar)
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Year of Release: 2015
Country: France / ChinaWolf Totem Blu-ray + Blu-ray 3D
Wolf TotemJean-Jacques Annaud’s Wolf Totem, which is based on the enormously popular semi-autobiographical 2004 novel by Jiang Rong, is set in the expansive grasslands of inner Mongolia in the late 1960s, and if the film has a true star, it is the environment itself, which is enormous and daunting, dangerous, yet serene. It is a place that feels virtually untouched by human hands, and it is no surprise that the film’s underlying theme is the danger posed by humanity when it starts trying to alter nature itself. There is a natural order to things, a balance put in place long before we existed, yet it is endemic to the human ego that we think we know better, that we can conquer that natural order and remake it to our own convenience, despite history telling us again and again that such actions lead to disaster.

That is precisely what happens in Wolf Totem when the Chinese government, which is in the midst of its late-’60s Cultural Revolution, begins sending students from the major cities into the rural areas to teach the people living there Mandarin and the ways of Mao Zedong’s Chinese Communism. Chen Zhen (Shaofeng Feng), a university student from Beijing (and Jiang Rong’s literary stand-in), is one of those students, and he is sent to inner Mongolia to teach the small villages of nomadic Mongols who live and work there. These nomads, most of whom work as herders of sheep and horses, have been living in balance with the grasslands for generations, a history that carries little weight with the preordained sense of order and sameness the Communist government seeks to impose. Chen soon realizes that he has more to learn from the Mongols than they have to learn from him, and the longer he spends with them, the more intrigued he becomes by their ancient ways of life and relationship with the grasslands, which often imparts unexpected lessons (the nomads are so connected to the land that they do not bury their dead, but rather leave them out in the grass to supply meat for other animals). There are also hints of mysticism and spirituality, such as when Chen sees what appears to be a face smiling down at him from the clouds when he narrowly escapes death at one point, but this aspect of the film is not particularly well developed.

The primary conflict is between the nomads and the packs of Mongolian wolves who live in the rocky hills around the steppes. The wolves are dangerous predators with whom the nomads have struck a delicate balance, ensuring that they do not encroach too far on the animals’ terrain or interrupt their food supply (which is primarily wild gazelle). The modern mind would see the wolves as dangerous and therefore in need of annihilation, but the nomads recognize that they play a crucial role in the ecosystem, and to remove them would be to upset the overall balance of life. And this is precisely what happens once the Chinese government decides to use the grasslands and the nomads to manage an important herd of military horses, a decision that ends in disaster and results in the order to eradicate the wolves. Thus, the balance is upset, the relationship between human and animal is upended, and something akin to war breaks out between the humans and the wolves.

It is testament to the virtuoso collaboration between director Jean-Jacques Annaud and cinematographer Jean-Marie Dreujou that Wolf Totem conveys the power of the landscape’s beautiful enormity; it is easy to get lost in the expansive skies and undulating waves of grass, but they constantly remind us that danger lies everywhere—not just from the wolves, but from the weather, storms, frozen lakes, and the like. Beauty and danger are forever intertwined, which is an apt description of the wolves, which are wonderfully complex animals that evoke a deep, primal sense of fear, but also respect and even admiration. Their intelligence, tenacity, determination, and patience are all virtues that we look for in our fellow humans, and it is only because the wolves command lands that people want to exploit that they are seen as villainous. Although they are introduced in a threatening manner, in a beautifully, terrifyingly modulated scene in which Chen finds him alone in the rocky foothills with wolves bearing down on him on all four sides, the film quickly balances its depiction by showing that the wolves are more often than not the victims of human exploitation, never so egregiously as when the Chinese government orders that their numbers be thinned by killing all the wolf pups.

Annaud was an inspired choice to direct this French-Chinese coproduction, as he has previously helmed films populated predominantly by animals (1988’s The Bear and 2004’s Two Brothers, the latter of which was also shot by Dreujou) and films set in Asia (1992’s The Lover), although ironically his 1997 film Seven Years in Tibet was and still is banned in China, as was he for some time. Wolf Totem is at its best when it is focused on the land itself and its inhabitants, and at times it almost feels like a well crafted nature documentary. Annaud and his editors are also adept at constructing impressive, how-did-they-get-that? action sequences, especially a lengthy setpiece set during a snowstorm at night as the wolves converge on the pack of horses the nomads are supposed to be protecting, setting off an increasingly ferocious stampede through the dark valley. The wolves themselves are played by animals that had been specifically trained for several years for this film, and they are augmented by animatronic stunt doubles and some digital trickery, but the best thing one can say about the film is that is maintains a sense of heightened realism that serves its subject matter well.

However, it is unfortunate that Wolf Totem does not work nearly as well on a dramatic level. The characters are never particularly intriguing, and even Chen’s political awakening to the realities of his government and their lack of care for the land doesn’t carry much charge except on a larger thematic level. One could argue, though, that the people are less important as individuals than they are as representatives of humanity who either live in concert with nature or in conflict with it. The goal of the film is to dramatize that balance and its tragic upending, and in that respect it is enormously successful, although one could imagine an even better film that found an additional balance between the environmental themes and the psychology of its characters.

Wolf Totem Blu-ray + Blu-ray 3D

Aspect Ratio2.35:1
Audio
  • Mandarin Chinese DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround
  • French DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround
  • Spanish Dolby Digital 5.1 surround
  • SubtitlesEnglish, French, Spanish
    Supplements
  • “The Director’s Adventure” featurette
  • “A Look at the Cast” featurette
  • “Respecting the Environment” featurette
  • “The Nature of a Wolf” featurette
  • DistributorSony Pictures Home Entertainment
    SRP$34.99
    Release DateDecember 15, 2015

    VIDEO & AUDIO
    Shot digitally on the Arri Alexa and the Red Epic, Wolf Totem is nothing if not an absolutely gorgeous film, something that Sony’s 1080p/AVC-encoded Blu-ray does a fine job conveying. The image is beautifully rendered in terms of color, contrast, and detail, and many of the wide vista shots are worth pausing and admiring for some time. The various textures, from the rocky terrain of the hills, to the rough fabrics of the nomads’ clothing, are all rendered with excellent visual nuance, as are the various close-ups of the people and animals. A single Blu-ray offers both 2D and 3D presentations of the film, and I hate to say that I found that 3D presentation to be a bit disappointing. The wider shots don’t offer a great deal of depth, which renders quite a bit of the film relatively flat even in 3D. Closer shots and shots with something in the immediate foreground fare better, although there is sometimes visual/spatial conflict between the foreground objects and the subtitles. The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1-channel soundtrack is also very effective, giving us excellent surround work and low-frequency effects in the action sequences (particularly the horse stampede). James Horner’s score (one the last he composed before passing away this year) also sounds excellent.

    SUPPLEMENTS
    Given the scope and scale of this production, I was hoping that there would be some in-depth supplements, but alas all we get are about half an hour’s worth of brief featurettes, most of which feel like they were pulled directly from the electronic press kit. There are featurettes (all under 6 minutes) devoted to the cast members, to director Jean-Jacques Annaud, and to the environmental issues at the film’s heart. The best featurette, which at 11 minutes is also by far the longest, looks at the training of the wolves and how they were managed during production.

    Copyright ©2015 James Kendrick

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    All images copyright © Sony Pictures Home Entertainment

    Overall Rating: (3)



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