Wolf Totem Movie Review
Review by Karen Samdahl (B+)
I saw Wolf Totem in an IMAX theater and if for no other reason it is worth seeing for the stunning cinematography. This is a Chinese production with a notable French director (Jean-Jacques Arnaud), filmed on the immense grasslands of Inner Mongolia. The year is 1967, during China’s Cultural Revolution. Besides the photography, there are several aspects of the film that I enjoyed: the insights into the traditional nomadic lives of the Mongols, the spirit and beauty of the wolves, and the portrayal of the conflicts between an indigenous people who knew how to live wisely in their environment faced with the invasion of an “advanced civilization” who lacked any wisdom whatsoever regarding the natural world—sort of mirrors our own American history and present, doesn’t it?
The movie is well-constructed. Stemming from the actions of one poor nomad who yearns for a transistor radio, a series of tragedies to both humans and animals ensues, one after another like falling dominoes. The actor Shaofeng Feng plays young Chinese student Chen Zhen, who is sent by his brigade to teach literacy to the nomads--and in the process secretly saves a wolf cub. He is compelling in his role, but I liked even more the old Ba Sen Zha Bu who plays Chen Zhen’s mentor in the nomadic community. I would have liked more development between other human characters, but then they were not really the focus of the film—wolves are.
In some ways this film is akin to Stephen Spielberg’s War Horse. It is a story that needs to be told, but many times during the film is painful to watch. Be prepared that animals die in the film. The pain is balanced by the joy of watching real Mongolian wolf “actors” in action. It is a haunting and tragic tale, based on a novel by Jiang Rong. I will add one thing: it was in itself an achievement to see a Chinese film on a true and serious subject offering criticism to the government of that brutal era in the 1960’s. The movie is in English.
Review by Erik Samdahl unless otherwise indicated.