Wolf Totem: A film review

Blown away by the power of the Mongolian film WOLF TOTEM.  The film title in French, tellingly, is DERNIER LOUP – the last wolf, which makes a great deal more immediate sense than the English title.

How it differs from the usual film product: the majesty of the emerald steppes, miles of waist-high sedge, untouched aqua lakes, the capture of the brute elements that play such a role in the Mongol nomadic life, the authenticity of the actors, and the remarkable work evidenced by the director and cinematographers in eliciting stupefying performances by the feral wolves in so many scenes.

It is 1967, and Chen Zhen, played by handsome Shaofeng Feng, an earnest young Beijing scholar, is dispatched to live among the nomad herdsmen of Inner Mongolia.  He is soon caught between the advance of civilization from the south, in the rank but domiciled dank mustard of Mao's China, and the nomads' entirely primal and tribal way of life with its setbacks, challenges...and palpable rewards.

The thoughtful watcher will note the nuanced caste distinctions alluded to in the protagonist student, a Han Chinese, studying these ethnic Mongols so far outside the (somewhat more) civilized huddle of '60s Beijing.  He soon becomes smitten with the herding nomadic life, the camaraderie, and the stoic, alluring, unfussy Mongol women who make such a difference in the hardscrabble lives of the tribe.

We have long been supporters of wolves.  They have been, in the U.S. West, over-hunted, reviled, maligned, and legislated almost out of existence.  There have been for the past several decades determined efforts by concerned wildlifers to restore numbers to the dwindling fox population; these magnificent animals deserve a niche in the phyla of the world's faunae.  Of course, here, they are starving, and they prey on the tribe's sheep, gazelles, horses, and, if thwarted, even humans.  Primordial, they are driven by hunger. 

In this striking film, a rebuttal of the new "documentary," UNITY, reviewed in these columns, animals are not vegan angels.  They are scarily cunning, biding their time until the nearby gazelles are too full of forage to run quickly – then striking remorselessly.  They are resourceful, sentient faunae, yet they are merely following the natural dictates of the laws of nature controlling us.  Eat or die.  The shiver-inducing scene where the foxes figure out how to surmount the steep sheep enclosure is easily the rival of the emergence of the primordial primates into self-awareness in Kubrick's 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY.  
We noted that the wolves in the film are starveling, scrawny, and fitting with the Mongols' description.  They wait for the best time to strike for their supper.  And when hurt or slain, they, too, mourn their dead.

We were happy to hear again the Mandarin that enveloped us when we lived in China, and found interesting the empathic humanity (though we doubt such would have been the actual case during the regime of Mao, ending with his death in 1976) of the exasperated Red Guard official functionary come from Beijing trying to corral and admonish the tribe for "substandard" herding and management skills with the People's magnificent horse herd.  Astounding, too, was the scene of those same equines, frozen mid-step in a flash Arctic blizzard.  Is it a sculpture?  Is it a dream mirage?  How did the filmmakers create this tragic diorama, so electrifying, so sad – evocative of Picasso's Guernica?

It is rare that one is caught deeply enough to weep at a film nowadays.  This one bore none of the annoying, artificial marks of CGI and SFX that for many detract from the power of many movies to aid suspension of disbelief.  So many celluloid fans have stated that they no longer trust Hollywood films, and won't spend their dinero to see them, with few exceptions.  Clearly, WOLF TOTEM is no Hollywood effort; it rewards the viewer with a near-biblical simplicity and clarity all can respond to and comprehend.

In fine, the story and its dénouement might be a metaphor – a tragic preview of mankind, should we not heed the tocsin to caution with our species and the immutable balance of all of life's creatures.

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