With its sweeping Mongolian panoramas and majestic, reallife wolf packs, "Wolf Totem" should lure lovers of nature into the theater. But director JeanJacques Annaud's 3-D action drama will also repel them, for this is the sad, bloody tale of a campaign to eradicate wolves from the steppes they once ruled.
The movie is based on the semi-autobiographical 2004 novel by Jiang Rong (a pseudonym for Lu Jiamin). Raised in Beijing, he became a herderhunter in Inner Mongolia during the late-1960s Cultural Revolution, when young, educated Chinese were dispatched to the hinterlands for re-education. On screen, he's called Chen Zhen (Shaofeng Feng). Chen is bookish but awed by the Mongolian nomads and their homeland.
He is especially fascinated by tribal elder Bilig (Basen Zhabu), who teaches Chen the ways of the wolf. The Mongolians, the old man explains, both compete with and emulate the animals, adopting their hunting techniques and sometimes taking their prey. Genghis Khan became a conqueror, he says, by studying lupine strategies.
According to Bilig, the Mongolians are like wolves, and the Han Chinese are like sheep. Chen comes to agree, and his admiration for the shadowy, yellow-eyed predators grows. When assigned to raid their dens and kill the next generation of wolf pups before they can eat the herders' sheep, Chen can't resist saving one of them from death. He secretly raises the animal, ignoring the Mongolians' practical and philosophical objections.
Annaud made "Seven Years in Tibet" (1997), which remains banned in China because of its positive depiction of the Dalai Lama. But the director of "Two Brothers" (2004) — another animal film made with real tigers — and "The Bear" (1988) was the logical choice to direct the Chinese-financed "Wolf Totem." While the movie uses a variety of tricks, the wolves are genuine.
Wolves, horses and sheep are the principal players in the movie's set pieces, which are powerfully staged and tightly edited, if sometimes oversold by James Horner's score. Annaud and his crew, including wolf trainer Andrew Simpson, illustrate the animals' cunning and coordination. One sequence shows why some herders were once convinced that wolves can fly.
The human drama is more perfunctory. Chen's principal relationships are with Bilig and the pup he adopts, although the would-be herder harbors a crush on his mentor's brave and beautiful daughter-in-law (Ankhnyam Ragchaa). Periodically, the regional Communist Party boss (Yin Zhusheng) arrives to deliver some command that rides roughshod over Mongolian tradition and ecological common sense.
This is, after all, Maoist China, where a campaign to save grain by killing birds once led to an explosion of grain-eating insects. Bilig knows that wolves are an essential part of the ecosystem that sustains the grasslands. Not so for the animal actors that were bred to star in "Wolf Totem," though. When their shooting days were over, they got to retire to the Canadian Rockies.
Cast: Feng Shaofeng, Shawn Dou, Yin Zhusheng, Ba Sen Zha Bu
Director: Jean-Jacques Annaud
Rating: PG-13 for disturbing images and violence involving animals, and for brief sexuality
Running time: 2 hours, 1 minute