Wolf Totem review – lupine thrills and pack mentality

Bestseller adaptation that is part wildlife doc, part dissection of the Cultural Revolution; at times fantastically exiting, at others bogged down in muddy metaphor

Chosen as China’s foreign-language Oscar entry this year, you’d expect Jean-Jacques Annaud’s adaptation of Wolf Totem, a bestseller by Lü Jiamin, to dutifully toe the party line – especially as it’s set during the Cultural Revolution, a wound never requiring much unstitching. But from the moment Feng Shaofeng’s bright-eyed party cadre steps out on to the Mongolian steppes – where Lü was posted in the 1960s – Annaud’s film can’t help itself galloping off in allegorical bursts barely under his control, and intriguingly off-course from the kind of bold messages of national conciliation officially sanctioned Chinese films tend to convey.

Perhaps the Chinese authorities are trying to present a new enlightened face, with Wolf Totem’s horizon-gazing lectures on Mongol identity – top warriors on account of studying lupine tactics, apparently – and studied ecological tone. Certainly something seems to have shifted from when Annaud reportedly received a lifetime ban from China for spotlighting another borderlands cause in Seven Years in Tibet. Not only is he back, but the film, taking its lead from Lü’s thorny writings, asserts itself on behalf of the country’s minorities, and directs caustic criticism at the Han majority and even the Communist party itself; the representatives of the forces of progress wrecking the northern fringes. It’s Feng’s character’s decision to adopt and rear a wolf cub that upends the natural order and threatens disaster in the village.

Reaching out … Feng Shaofeng in Wolf Totem.
Reaching out … Feng Shaofeng in Wolf Totem. Photograph: Allstar/Mars Distribution

But then what are we supposed to make of speeches about grass, gazelles and wolves all existing in balance as part of a larger whole (delivered by a Mongolian elder obviously not big on allegory)? It’s hard not to take that as the political bottom line from Beijing.

These swirling subtextual undercurrents have the unfortunate effect of muddying the impact of the parable-like simplicity with which Annaud tries to unfurl his story across some astonishing vistas. The ambiguity they bring causes Wolf Totem to stub its toe in places, like every time a certain panto-villain communist officer shows up. Nor is the film especially ethnographically or zoologically sharp: 2003 docudrama The Story of the Weeping Camel or any appropriate Wildlife on One special covered the yurt and wolf beats with more of an eye for the heritage and the individuals involved.

But as you’d expect from the director responsible for previous creature features The Bear (1988) and Two Brothers (2003), Wolf Totem has undeniable elemental, even spiritual, power at its disposal. The wolves get as many adulatory closeups as any Hollywood A-lister, and Annaud relishes filming the pack on clifftops in pouting choreographed ranks, like some canine boyband, or a shaggy, panting Mount Rushmore. The central sequence – a desperate attempt by the herders to head off a horse stampede in a blizzard – is fantastically exciting, and mostly done in-camera, not through CGI: pounding hooves, yellow flashlights picking out horror-movie fangs, blind desperation. You can forgive Annaud for getting carried away elsewhere.


Phil Hoad

The GuardianTramp

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