‘Wolf Totem’: A gorgeous but heavy-handed love letter to nature

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By Barbara VanDenburgh | Gannett News Service

“Wolf Totem” doesn’t feel so much like fully formed narrative film as it does a trumped-up National Geographic special on Inner Mongolia eager to make use of shiny new IMAX cameras. The Chinese-French co-production, with “Seven Years in Tibet” director Jean-Jacques Annaud at the helm, is as loving of the infinite blue skies and rolling emerald grasslands of northern China as it is careless with its paper-lantern-thin characters.

It’s 1967, at the start of China’s cultural revolution, and a pair of big-city students, Chen Zhen (Shaofeng Feng) and Yang Ke (Shawn Dou), are sent to Inner Mongolia, ostensibly to teach the rough-living, uneducated tribal people on the far outskirts of civilization how to read and write. But it’s bright-eyed and eager Chen Zhen who ends up learning the biggest lessons. He’s immediately taken with the landscape and its people, especially the wise village elder and flirtatious Gasma (Ankhnyam Ragchaa), with whom he has instant rapport.

But even more than doe-eyed Gasma, Chen Zhen is taken with the wolves. The majestic, dangerous creatures are an essential element in the delicate balance of the grassland’s ecosystem, one that threatens collapse at the unwelcome intrusion of a corrupt and overreaching communist government. When outsiders plunder the wolves’ winter food reserves and command the slaughter of newborn wolf cubs, they set into motion a dangerous imbalance that threatens every life in the grasslands.

It’s an overly familiar tale of the hubris of man in his treatment of nature, offering little in the way of insight or emotional catharsis, even when Chen Zhen, to the protests of the tribe, rescues a solitary wolf cub from slaughter, choosing instead to raise it in secret in the domestic warmth of his private yurt. The photography here, as elsewhere, is striking. Whether it’s the expanse of rolling hills and frozen lakes or close-ups of a baby wolf’s soft fur, the camera hugs each texture with awe.

And to the film’s credit, it doesn’t shy away from nature’s brutality. Many are the shots of bloodied, imperiled and ultimately dead animals — it’s not a nature film for the faint of furry heart.

All that gorgeous photography and unflinching gaze, though, is powerless against the schmaltz of dime-store Eastern spirituality and toothless, familiar criticisms of man’s role in nature. As with the delicate ecosystem at the heart of the film, leave it to the careless humans to muck things up.

[s3r star=2/4]

Columbia Pictures presents a film directed by Jean-Jacques Annaud and written by Annaud, Alain Godard, Lu Wei, and John Collee, based on the novel by Jiang Rong. In Mandarin with English subtitles. Running time: 121 minutes. Rated PG-13 (for disturbing images and violence involving animals, and for brief sexuality). Opens Friday at local theaters.

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