Jean-Jacques Annaud’s Wolf Totem is set in Inner Mongolia during the Cultural Revolution and concerns the Chinese Communist Party’s efforts to civilize the locals. The story is told from the point of view of Chen Zhen (Feng Shaofeng), a young Beijing student sent there to teach the Mongolians how to read and write Mandarin Chinese, and its politics shift and waver with the protagonist’s own. Chen is still basically an adolescent upon arrival, and his fondness for the traditional Mongolian way of life quickly replaces his previous, already tenuous nationalist ideology. Annaud allows Chen’s feelings about the Chinese communists’ relationship with the Mongolians to change and blur over the course of the film. Whereas the communists are initially portrayed as clueless foreign imperialists recklessly destroying the local ecosystem, by film’s end they’re just another part of it, albeit one that has profoundly changed the world of the natives. Similarly, Chen’s early romanticism is revealed as just that, and he emerges from his experience as a more sober and, ultimately, disillusioned individual.
Although disguised as a political epic, Wolf Totem is really a kind of boys’ adventure film. As a commentary on the Republic of China’s occupation of Inner Mongolia, its message is too muddled to register as a coherent protest, more evocative than provocative in its observations about Chinese imperialism in the country’s hinterland. In trying to comment on the nation’s politics while making a state-funded film, Annaud is only able to hint at the Chinese government’s mistreatment of the populations in its occupied territories. Criticism of the communist’s exploitation and mismanagement of local resources is only touched upon, and it soon becomes difficult to separate the natives from their communist masters in terms of their treatment of their natural surroundings. The focus, instead, shifts to Chen’s relationship with a wolf cub that he rescues from death and comes to symbolize both his own coming of age and the film’s ambiguous feelings about communism’s impact on the Mongolians. By the time the cub has reached adulthood and returned to the wild, Chen has also attained some kind of emotional and political maturity, which seems to consist of the knowledge that one must obey orders and resign oneself to the existing order. This conservative message seems at first to be at odds with the film’s earlier tone of protest, but actually fits Chen’s personality perfectly, a jejune figure whose fiery rhetoric never fully conceals the passivity and callowness of his character.
Having made a number of successful fictional films and documentaries about wild animals, Annaud knows how to endow the film’s wildlife with both character and intention, and the chase scenes involving wolves, horses, and gazelles are breathtaking in their realism and utterly convincing in their violence. Almost as effective are the scenes devoted to explicating Mongolian animism and its syncretism with Chinese communism. The film draws implicit parallels between Tengger, the Mongolian sky god, and Chairman Mao as figures of divine authority who reward great sacrifice by providing their followers with protection and endowing their lives with meaning. This is an ambiguous connection, and it’s unclear if this observation is meant to be viewed negatively or favorably. As such, Wolf Totem’s political message feels muddled, though one remains in constant thrall of its stunning cinematography and anthropological attention throughout.