Wolf Totem is a Chinese film with a Chinese cast, based on a Chinese book, shot by French director Jean-Jacques Annaud.
The 2004 novel Wolf Totem was an international best-seller. It was translated into more than 30 langauges, sold millions of copies, and won the Man Asia Literary Prize in 2007. It was based on the experiences of author Lu Jiamin (writing under the pen name of Jiang Rong) who lived among the semi-nomadic herders of Inner Mongolia for 11 years, beginning in the late 1960s. He was one of the millions of students who were sent to the countryside during the Cultural Revolution.
The author’s alter ego, Chen Zhen, learns a lot about the herders’ traditional way of life, and the fear, respect and admiration they have for the wolves who share the grasslands with them. Some of the book’s dialogue sounds more like one-sided lectures than true conversations; even so, it’s a fascinating read. Politicians living far, far away make cringe-inducing decisions of the “this-will-not-end-well” kind – to set up large farms, to encourage the immigration of Han Chinese, and to slaughter all the wolves.
Chen Zhen (played by William Feng Shaofeng) develops a fascination with the wolves, and adopts a young pup, going against the wishes and advice of his Mongolian mentor, Bilig.
While an official announcement hasn’t yet been made, several news articles say that Wolf Totem will be China’s entry in the race for an Academy Award.
Wolf Totem has two Canadian connections. One is actor Shawn Dou, who plays Chen Zhen’s friend and colleague Yang Ke. He moved from China to Vancouver with his parents when he was 10 years old, and returned to China in 2008 to study acting.
Animal trainer Andrew Simpson was an integral part of the film. He was born in Scotland, but has run his business, Instinct Animals for Film, from a ranch north of Calgary, Alberta, since 1994. While he and his partner, Sally Jo Sousa, work with many kinds of animals, they specialize in wolves. But North American and Eurasian wolves are quite different, so they could not use the wolves they already had. They spent more than three years in China, training Mongolian wolves for their roles in the film. They got five-week-old wolf pups from a zoo and raised them in their Beijing apartment, giving them their constant attention. You can read more about that process, and see photos of Simpson cuddling the wolf puppies, in this 2012 article from The Telegraph, which calls Simpson a “wolf whisperer.” A Calgary Herald article from last year indicates that after the film was completed, he brought 16 of the wolves to the Calgary ranch. In 2013 Simpson made Wolves Unleashed, a documentary about working with wolves; you can buy it from iTunes for $19.99
Wolf Totem, in Mandarin and Mongolian with English subtitles, will be shown as part of the Festival des films du monde / Montreal World Film Festival on:
Saturday Aug. 29, 2015 – 7 p.m. – CINÉMA IMPÉRIAL
Saturday Aug. 29, 2015 – 9:30 p.m. – CINÉMA IMPÉRIAL, 1430 Bleury St., Montreal, Quebec, H3A 2J1
Director : Jean-Jacques Annaud
Screenwriter : Alain Godard, Jean-Jacques Annaud, Lu Wei, John Collee. D’après le roman de/Based on the novel by: Jiang Rong
Cinematographer : Jean-Marie Dreujou
Editor : Reynald Bertrand
Cast : Feng Shaofeng, Shawn Dou, Ankhnyam Ragchaa, Yin Zhusheng, Basen Zhabu
Music : James Horner
Film production and Sales : Prod.: Max Wang, Xu Jianhai, China Film Co., Ltd. / Beijing Forbidden City Film Co., Ltd.
Festival des films du monde / Montreal World Film Festival continues until Sept. 7, 2015. Consult the festival’s web site for more information.