‘Wolf Totem’ captures gorgeous Mongolian vistas with vibrant energy but overstays its welcome

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“Wolf Totem” beautifully captures Mongolian plains but lacks character development and story narrative.
Photo Credit: Courtesy of Columbia Pictures

The decline of frontiers around the world is one of the great tragedies. As people ventured into untamed lands, they destroyed what they could not tame.

“Wolf Totem” chronicles one of these tragedies — the struggle of people and wolves to survive the harsh plains of Mongolia. In an adaptation of Jiang Rong’s semi-autobiographical novel, director Jean Jacques-Annaud produces a visually powerful experience that’s heavy on drama but light on character. There’s a lot to like about this Chinese-language epic, despite its tread on familiar territory.

For Beijing college student Chen Zhen (Feng Shaofeng), Mongolia is anything but familiar. Driven by the communists’ Cultural Revolution, he is one of many Han Chinese settlers who journeyed there to modernize the land and introduce agriculture to the nomads. Zhen’s encounter with a pack of wolves quickly changes his view of the plains, and he develops enormous admiration for the creatures that roam it.

When the Chinese settlers cut off the wolves’ supply of food, the wolves turn to the nomads’ livestock and doom themselves when they attack a herd of prized Chinese horses. Annaud and cinematographer Jean-Marie Dreujou place the audience in the middle of the hunt, delivering dozens of beautiful and terrifying shots as the late James Horner’s score ramps up the chase’s intensity.

After the debacle, the Chinese order the nomads to kill the wolves and their cubs, but Zhen refuses to obey the order and saves a cub he calls Little Wolf. As Little Wolf grows older, his bond with Zhen is threatened by settlers, nomads and wolves alike.
“Wolf Totem” does not sustain the energy of its strong start — the rest of the film feels like a long comedown after the incredibly staged horse chase sequence. The drama becomes repetitive as the wolves attack and humans retaliate again and again, drawing attention to the abundance of events and the characters’ lack of dimension.
 
Youthful Zhen is innocent and noble, and that’s pretty much all the movie tells the audience. The script doesn’t give Shaofeng much to do, and, while his performance is good, there is little depth to it. He does, however, make his relationship with Little Wolf sweet and memorable.

The most striking part of “Wolf Totem” is how it highlights the gorgeous Mongolian plains. Dreujou employs numerous wide shots that display Mongolia’s magnificence, emphasizing its seemingly infinite stretch. The film feels real — it doesn’t touch up the locales to make them perfect, and there’s ruggedness in the nomadic settlements.

The wolves are a constant presence. They are symbols rather than characters, serving as an allegory for nature’s demise at the hands of man. Thanks to their mysterious, supernatural aura, they imbue the picture with mysticism and imply that man’s confrontation against wolf is also a battle against a higher, spiritual power.

That power is Tenger, the chief Mongolian god. The nomads display awareness of Tenger’s work and live with nature as a way of respecting him, while the Chinese settlers disregard the life he gives to the land. The conservationist message has been done before, but “Wolf Totem” imparts it in a graceful manner.

“Wolf Totem” is an eye-popping epic that chronicles the decline of the Mongolian plains. What it lacks in narrative and characterization, it makes up for with its emotional and visceral strength.

Title: “Wolf Totem”
Running Time: 121 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Score: 3/5 stars