Lions and tigers and bears, oh my! ...and now, wolves. It's true that French director Jean-Jacques Annaud seems to have a "gift" for directing animals, as proven by The Bear (bears) and Two Brothers (tigers), and apparently it was his ease at handling beasts rather than humans that ended up getting him the job to direct Wolf Totem after other directors (among which Peter Jackson) passed on the project.
Even so, those are not the films most people associate with one of the rare French filmmakers to achieve an international career on his own terms, before wonder-boy Luc Besson took over with his genre-film assembly line; Quest for Fire, The Lover, The Name of the Rose, Seven Years in Tibet and Enemy at the Gates will ring more a bell with international audiences. Such films also best define the strengths and weaknesses of the director: an old-fashioned storyteller working within the mold of classic adventure cinema, a peculiar throwback to the prestige, big-budget cinéma de papa against which so much of Mr. Annaud's generation stood up to. In some ways, the director is tilting at windmills in a landscape where his favoured mode of production no longer is a shoo-in; and it's true that he wasn't the first choice to direct Wolf Totem, since Chinese authorities had given him the cold shoulder after he dared approach the issue of Tibetan independence in Seven Years in Tibet.
True to form, though, this is not merely job for hire: set in Mongolia in the early seventies and following an ethnic Han chinese man's discovery and appreciation of the Mongol culture he was sent to help eliminate, this is very clearly in tune with the director's own sensibility. Based on a best-selling semi-autobiographical novel that became a record-breaking best-seller in China, the story of Chen Zhen (Shaofeng Feng), the urban teacher who becomes enamored of the millennial balance between nature and man that he is taught by the villagers he has been assigned to, is part exotic travelogue and part ecological animal adventure. The narrative hinges on the wolf as an essential element of the Mongol ecosystem that progress and small-mindedness threaten to destroy, through Chen's stubbornly defiant and heartwarming rearing of a surviving wolf cub who will eventually turn out to be the possible salvation to restore the nearly extinct community.
In some ways it's Jack London's Call of the Wild reimagined as a fable for our wildlife extinction days, and a throwback to a certain type of big budget adventure movies of the mid fifties where the budget generously made available to Mr. Annaud by the Chinese production is all up there on the screen, in the breathtaking Mongolian landscapes crisply lensed in tasteful picture-postcard framing by DP Jean-Marie Dreujou and the extended pre-production that allowed a small pack of wolf cubs to be trained specifically for the film's purposes. That dogged practical-effects aspect is perfectly in tune with the (equally stubbornly) admirably old-fashioned approach at work here, somewhere between get-the-job-done classicism and musty academicism.
It's a hackneyed, stilted, predictable plot that Mr. Annaud dutifully plods through, since it's clear that the director is much more interested in the adventurous opportunity of shooting on a remote location and attempting to honor a specific way of life that has been/is being left behind. For all the by-the-book elements that form the film's narrative, it's really the sense of a world that is slowly vanishing in front of your eyes (even if that world is made much more tangible in something like Tuya's Marriage or Tulpan) that carries Wolf Totem through, and that's why the film cannot just be dismissed as a cynical money-grab or a calculated attempt to conquer the Chinese market. There is a genuine, sincere respect for the Mongols and the wolves here - just like there is a genuine desire to make a film that bucks up the trend of big-budget whiz-bang eye-candy that's omnipresent today.
LE DERNIER LOUP
China, France, 2014, 118 minutes
Starring Shaofeng Feng, Shawn Dou, Ankhnyam Ragchaa, Yin Zhusheng, Basen Zhabu
Directed by Jean-Jacques Annaud; screenplay by Alain Godard, Mr. Annaud, Lu Wei and John Collee, based on the novel Wolf Totem by Jiang Rong; cinematographer Jean-Marie Dreujou (widescreen); composer James Horner; production designer Quan Rongzhe; costume designers Ma Yingbo and Wang Rong; effects supervisors Christian Rajaud and Guo Jianqian; film editor Reynald Bertrand; producers La Peikang, Xavier Castano and Mr. Annaud, for China Film Company, Repérage, Beijing Forbidden City Company, Mars Films, Wild Bunch, China Movie Channel, Beijing Phoenix Entertainment Company, Chinavision Media Group, Hérodiade Films and Loull Production
Screened October 1st 2015, São Jorge 3, Lisbon, distributor press screening