Avid film hobbyists, most critical literature and the big websites universally panned Wolf Totem as another lemon off the Copywood assembly line, and for good reason. The massive panning shots of mountains and Mongolia’s epic grassland reek of Peter Jackson and Golum, while nearly all scenes featuring wolves seem to be ripped directly from a National Geographic documentary, but such documentaries do look good, and Wolf Totem is no exception, often a stunning, visual buffet that leaves the eyes to devour the astonishing landscape of China’s far northern frontier.
The 2015 Sino-French production is set amidst the early years of the Cultural Revolution; the main character Chen Zhen, is one of a duo of students sent to the Mongolian countryside to help educate local children in the Party’s philosophies and the Mandarin language. Perhaps unwisely, he adopts and raises an abandoned wolf cub in a shepherd community, against the wishes of the local elder and the decree of a local government official. Where the film does shine is in its exploration of Mongolian animism, language and local customs. It gives a glimpse into the disappearing way of life of the nomadic scavenger on the steppe. From scouting out frozen animals for meat to skill on horseback, the film shows a day in the true life of these graceful peoples.
Sadly, areas where the film went right were few and painstakingly spread out. The director’s anti-CCP themes were flimsy and overpowered by sentimentalism. Wolf Totem was based on the eponymous novel, which featured a more detailed exploration of Mongolian nomad culture. Instead of making it more of an anthropological, travel film, the director sought to paint with large strokes and focus on social issues. A little more focus on the actual characters in the novel would keep people watching, instead they are wooden and thinly drawn.
The greatest frustration of the flick is the character development and writing – every character in the movie feels like a cliché. There’s a wizened-sage father character that has to die in a gut-wrenching, tear jerking show of emotion just to move the dead-in-the-water plot along. It also features the obligatory plucky love interest that has to remain faithful to her lost husband. The good guy is a banal portrayal of a wide-eyed schoolboy that rejects the party line and totally immerses himself into an alien culture – seamlessly and without hitch. The film’s main antagonist bears too striking a resemblance to Chiang Kai-shek, including evil Hitler moustache, and he must blunder along and destroy everything pristine. With no clear protagonist in sight, all characters are unlikeable past the point of anti-hero and will lead to most reaching for the remote. Wolf Totem is truly a long two hours, and a bit like drinking a glass of lukewarm water: you can’t make tea from it, and it won’t quench thirst.