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Wolf Totem
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by Jay Seaver

"Something of an Imax 3D art film, which is why it's worth seeking out."
4 stars

I've got a rule of thumb that may not apply to everybody, but which has treated me fairly well: When a foreign, documentary, or otherwise limited-release movie plays on a 3D or Imax screen usually reserved for much more mainstream fare, check it out. Someone felt strongly enough to prioritize the merit of that sort of big-screen experience over putting something closer to a sure thing on that potentially profitable screen, which probably means that it is in some way extraordinary. That got me into "Wolf Totem", and it holds true - this movie is not your usual anchor-theater fare, but there are bits you wouldn't want to see any other way.

Based upon the novel by Lu Jiamin (under the pseudonym Jiang Rong), it takes place in 1967, the second year of China's Cultural Revolution. Beijing college student Chen Zhen (Feng Shaofeng) has volunteered to spend two years in Inner Mongolia, teaching the nomads of the plains to read, write, and speak Mandarin. He and fellow student Yang Ke (Shawn Dou Xiao) will also learn about their culture from chief Bilig A'ba (Basen Zhabu), which starts with a healthy respect for the Mongolian Wolves that hunt in the area, as they are not only dangerous, but part of an ecological balance that representatives of the Central government such as Bao Shunghi (Yin Zhusheng) would do well to respect more. Chen becomes fascinated by these creatures, as well as the idea of capturing a cub and raising it so that the animal can be studied more closely.

Arguably one of the most astonishing things about this film is that not only was it made in China, but by one of the state-run film bureaus. In ways both obvious and subtle, it portrays the Chinese government in a fairly negative light - the government official played by Yin Zhusheng is either an arrogant fool who destroys systems he doesn't understand or a cowardly toady for such people, and there are plenty of examples of poor environmental stewardship by that government leaving species and ecosystems devastated , not all forty-five years in the past. Rather than justify, the film lets the audience draw obvious conclusions.

Besides that, director Jean-Jacques Annaud (also one of the four screenwriters) does much to equate the Mongol people and wolves - meat-eaters compared to the more rice-heavy diet of the stationary Han Chinese, migratory, proud and clever; Chen Zhen and Yang Ke discuss how the Great Wall had to be built in order to protect China from the Mongols despite their much smaller numbers and more primitive technology. In attempting to raise a wolf cub, Chen Zhen is arguably a symbolic representation of the People's Republic as well as a literal one - he may be working from well-intended ideals, but he does not understand the land and character of the place and may bring disaster in the same way as Bao.

Annaud does not spend much time on lecturing the audience, though; he instead observes, using both the massive screen and mostly-native 3D photography to immerse the audience in the setting. Bilig may impart a fair amount of wisdom to Chen Zhen and the audience, but Annaud never fails to show how what he's describing is the case, so that when it continues to play out, the audience has an instinctive understanding of what it is seeing. A number of images are downright stunning, most notably the aftermath of the film's biggest and most thrilling action sequence (itself worth the price of admission), while others are simply transporting, reminding one of how IMAX screens were generally used until about ten years ago.

The wolves seem to fascinate Annaud as much as they do Chen Zhen, and there are times when one can't help but be reminded that this is the man who made The Bear as the animals take over the screen and the camera holds their image long enough to keep the audience really looking, forging some sort of kinship. It's interesting to note that through much of the film, the wolves are seldom seen on-screen with humans or other things that would give them scale - perched atop rocky hills or racing through tall grass, they seem enormous, with faces that sometimes hint at malice as well as great power. Even when food is drying up and the creatures are lean and starving, they still seem powerful in their desperation.

(The contrast to that are the adorable wolf pups, and both parents bringing their children and those who react strongly to animal cruelty onscreen should be warned that they are involved in some horrific moments that, though noted as being part of Mongol culture, are also noted as being gratuitous in this case. Take solace in that many members of the species were bred specifically for this movie and given a good home by the trainers after it was completed.)

Though much of the imagery is of nature, the human cast is fairly well-chosen. Feng Shaofeng may be rather older than the part he plays, but he does a fine job of portraying his character's awe and good intentions, as well as the hubris that he can't quite fight down. Basen Zhabu is excellent as the local chief; it's a wise-elder role that he essays with great charm and little stuffiness, his exasperation with those who upset the balance of his homeland human rather than delivered with serene certainty. Ankhnyman Rachaa is excellent as his daughter-in-law, to whom Chen Zhen takes a shine, communicating that her youth is not like Chen Zhen's without seeming hardened or resentful.

There are moments as the film makes its way through the second hour where it bogs down, although that is something difficult to avoid as the arc of the story must inevitably lead to the modern industrial society we know (or, in this case, lead back there). Still, the rumors that this will be China's entry for the Oscars' Foreign Language Film category are not surprising; it's the sort of film that navigates big ideas and different perspectives with grace. Despite any flaws, it deserves a big-screen viewing during the week or two when it's on the screens that it is clearly meant for.

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originally posted: 09/13/15 02:19:53
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  11-Sep-2015 (PG-13)
  DVD: 15-Dec-2015


  DVD: 15-Dec-2015

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