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BIF&ST 2015

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Wolf Totem, Annaud spends seven years in Mongolia


- The French director has shot a fantastic family film based on a very famous book in China. With the message of hope found in his previous works The Bear and Two Brothers

Wolf Totem, Annaud spends seven years in Mongolia
Shaofeng Feng in Wolf Totem

In his description of human nature, Thomas Hobbes made the Latin phrase "Homo homini lupus" his own. That’s because he hadn’t seen Jean-Jacques Annaud’s latest film, otherwise he would have changed it to the more suitable "man is a wolf to (his fellow) wolf". Never has a living creature with so much integrity and symbolism been so idolized and, at the same time, victimized. Just ask a shepherd from Anatolia or Inner Mongolia. Set in the latter, during the years of Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution, Wolf Totem [+see also:
film profile
illustrates the full spectrum of persecution, from throwing cubs onto rocks after grabbing them by the tail and swinging them around in the air, to dynamite booby traps, and even pursuing the leader of the pack with a jeep until making its heart literally explode.   

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Sensitive folk might turn their noses up at this and they could well be right. But Wolf Totem – making its Italian debut at the Bari Bif&st before being released in cinemas on 26 March with Notorious Pictures – remains nonetheless an impressive family film with a universal message of hope that’s common in the French director’s films: the man who relates to animals can get to know himself better. Forget Hobbes.

Annaud came to international fame with The Name of the Rose and gained a reputation following The Lover and Seven Years in Tibet. He was taken in years ago by the critical project for a massive Chinese-French co-production based on the novel by Jiang Rong, Wolf Totem. But Annaud is a director that loves challenges, and he left for a country that for years considered him an "unwelcome person" on account of his Seven Years in Tibet.  

A cult book for Chinese environmentalists, politicians, economists, students, workers and nouveau riche, Wolf Totem sold 20 million copies since its release in 2004 and seems to be the most popular book after Mao’s now outdated Red Book. Jiang Rong turned out to be a pseudonym for Lu Jiamin, a political science professor at the University of Beijing, arrested in 1989 while protesting with his students in Tiananmen Square and sentenced to 18 years in prison. 

The book tells the story of a young student from Beijing (Shaofeng Feng) sent to Mongolia in 1967 to participate in the massive civilization sought by the Chinese authorities, with the aim of turning this nomad people into a settled community. Relating with these people, the young man is fascinated by the elders’ wisdom. He adopts a wolf cub and learns to love this marvellous animal’s intelligence and its thirst for freedom.  

Annaud follows the book while taming the screenplay somewhat so as not to displease the Beijing Regime too much, but he does so with great skill and feeling. The most fascinating thing about the film is the training that must have taken place behind the scene in which the wolves are "performing" (the trainer is Andrew Simson, who moved to China for three years for the film), like the horse chase by the pack, filmed with drones and quad-bikes in the midst of a snowstorm. The overly "National Geographic" clips and the exaggerated harmony of the horses frozen in the lake can be forgiven.

(Translated from Italian)

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