Despite his best efforts at anonymity, Chinese author Lü Jiamin became a worldwide sensation in 2004 with Wolf Totem, an autobiographical novel he released under the pseudonym Jiang Rong.
A deeply political story about a young Beijing intellectual sent to live with nomadic herders in the wide expanse of Mongolia's grasslands, Wolf Totem tackles everything from ecology and the environment to the corruption at the heart of the communist system. Epic in scope, yet at the same time intensely intimate in its handling of its protagonist's inner life, it's a unique wildlife tale that sets a tribe of humans against a majestic pack of wolves.
It's the kind of story Jean-Jacques Annaud was born to film. Annaud is uniquely qualified - his works include Seven Years in Tibet, wildlife thriller The Bear, and the tribal war yarn Day of the Falcon.
Annaud rises to the challenge with Wolf Totem, an extraordinary big-screen adaptation that's simply a feast for the eyes and ears. Set during China's Cultural Revolution, in which the state sent millions of its most educated young men and women from the cities to the countryside, the film stars Feng Shaofeng (The Golden Era) as Chen Zhen, a dreamy student who is sent to the Mongolian steppe. Told by party bosses to bring modern ideas to the Mongolian herders, he discovers it's the so-called primitives who have more to teach him. His hosts live in harmony with their environment - including the region's dominant predator, wolves.
Wolf Totem has some of the most exciting, mind-blowing scenes of nature I've ever seen. In one typical sequence, a pack of wolves hunts down an entire herd of horses in a wild storm. The camera switches from dizzying long shots taken from helicopters to eye level views of wolves ripping into horse's necks.
Annaud's film waters down the novel's political message, and its characterization tends to rely on stereotypes. Yet, it enthralls the viewer so thoroughly, one forgives its weaknesses.
Wolf Totem *** (out of four stars)
Directed by Jean-Jacques Annaud. With Feng Shaofeng, Shawn Dou, Ankhnyam Ragchaa, Basen Zhabu. Distributed by Sony Pictures Releasing. In Mandarin and Mongolian with English subtitles.
Running time: 2 hours, 1 min.
Parent's guide: PG-13 (disturbing images and violence involving animals, brief sexuality).
Playing at: Area theaters.