Wolf in the fold

By Sun Shuangjie Source:Global Times Published: 2015-2-24 18:18:01

Film version of Wolf Totem does justice to source novel

It's fitting that Wolf Totem opened on the first day of the Year of the Sheep, as the movie chases away the frivolity of the recent New Year celebrations as ruthlessly as a pack of the titular animal tearing into a grazing herd, bringing viewers uncomfortably close to the raw harshness of existence.

The film is a Chinese-French co-production, directed by Jean Jacques Annaud, who won the Academy Award for the Best Foreign Language Film in 1976 for his debut Black and White in Color.

The story is adapted from Chinese writer Jiang Rong's eponymous novel, and is set on the steppe of the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region during the Cultural Revolution (1966-76).

It follows Beijing-born Chen Zhen (Feng Shaofeng) who was dispatched to Inner Mongolia in 1967 to work with Mongolians and exchange knowledge. Chen finds a wolf cub in a cave and, against the advice of his hosts, keeps it with the purpose of taming it.
A scene featuring Feng Shaofeng (right) and Shawn Dou of the film Photos: CFP

In the unforgiving surroundings where food is at a premium, Chen has to feed the wolf on his own rations, while protecting the cub against both people and animals.

Wild beauty
Chen spends a lot of time on horseback under azure skies and rolling white clouds, riding among the grazing sheep that the nomadic locals spend most of their time protecting.

He comes to feel that he belongs in Inner Mongolia rather than his distant hometown of Beijing as he falls under the spell of the wild and beautiful land that has become his adopted home.

Annaud spares no effort in depicting the astounding landscape of Inner Mongolia, with its energizing freshness and crystal-clear air during the day, its mild solemnity permeated by the sun's last glimmers during twilight, and the pure quiet of the snow-covered white land at night.

The Mongolian characters are as charming as the scenery, led by Bilig (Basen Zhabu), an old man who is asked to cooperate with Han officials to accomplish tasks such as taking care of a Communist commune's horses and hunting wolf cubs for their fur.

The characters of Mongolians are likened to those of wolves - fierce, patient and tolerant for the most part. Like the animals on which they depend, they obey the natural law of the steppe and have a contented spirit that maintains the ecological balance.

All of the Mongolian characters are played by Mongolians, who deliver persuasive performances of authenticity.

Animal magic

It took two years to train the 17 Mongolian wolves and more than 18 months to shoot the film. This dedication has translated into some breathtaking scenes, from the savagery of wolves fighting with animals and people to touching moments when one feels empathy for the creatures.

The 3D effects are also remarkable, especially when used in close-ups during human and animal confrontations.

Besides the authentic wolves, the ridiculous and cruel reality of China during the Cultural Revolution unveiled in the film is also compelling and thought-provoking.

Audiences can see how people lived in that difficult era and get a sense of the unforgettable grief it set in motion; while the cruel ridiculousness prevalent during that time is displayed in a number of scenes.

The different values held by Han people and Mongolian people are also thrown into relief, and to some extent are mirrored in the conflict between sheep and wolf.
A poster for the film

Everyone's a critic

Kevin Sun


"I'm impressed by the confrontation between humans and nature. I think humans are too greedy. The wolf scenes are very arresting."

Vivi Zhang


"I was sucked in by the beautiful scenery of Inner Mongolia. I want to go there someday."

Wu Lan


"I saw the selfishness of humans, the wisdom of Mongolian wolves, and the generosity of Mongolian people. The scenes are grand and satisfactory, but the plot is a bit plain, not as shocking as the novel. "

Source:Global times


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