What follows is a critique of the People's Republic of China's attempts to modernize the people of the steppes. The nomadic Mongolian shepherds have lived in the steppes for hundreds and hundreds of years, finding a delicate balance with wolves and other animals with whom they share the harsh terrain. The People's Republic is convinced that bringing industrialized agriculture will turn the steppes into a productive, happy part of the ideal communist country. Unfortunately, the arrival of industrialized agriculture and opportunism ruin that balance and threaten the Mongolian's entire way of life.
Chen Zhen becomes fascinated with the wolves that co-exist with the shepherds. Although ordered by the government representative from Beijing to exterminate the wolves, he finds a pup and decides to study it by raising it himself. The wolves themselves become the stars of the story, and their struggle against the encroaching industrialism mirrors the difficulty that the Mongolians themselves are having adjusting to the new way of living. The wolves are handled with a kind of wistful reverence, a respected and ever present threat to the shepherds.
A beautiful film, Wolf Totem isn't without its problems, however. Shown in IMAX 3D, I found it difficult to read the subtitles. Now I know that isn't necessarily a fault of the filmmakers, but it still made the film difficult to watch. The long shots of the steppe were marred, I felt, by the unnecessary 3D effect. The performances were great, but I found myself unable to connect with Chen Zhen. His ill-advised, and of course ill-fated, attempt to raise a wolf cub against all reason and logic struck me as unnecessary. I see the metaphor, however. The wolf is a wild creature that essentially can't be tamed, and trying to force it to live in captivity can't possibly work. Just as forcing industrialized agriculture on the steppes and their people won't work. Although I see the reason in the broader sense, in a practical one it doesn't work with the story. Chen Zhen just decides he wants to “study” the wolves to better understand them, but the people who have lived along side him have been studying them for hundreds of years. What could he possibly figure out in a few months? It just didn't fit for me. None of the human characters felt real, for that matter. They all seemed so stock and flat. Wise old man, young city slicker, precocious child. Now, maybe the novel gave us more to go on and fleshed the characters out, but that development does not happen in the film.
Well acted and expertly filmed, Wolf Totem is by no means a bad film. The political overtones are real and palpable, and one really feels that sense of loss over a way of life that is all but gone. That wistful reverence I spoke of earlier really comes through. I get the feeling, however, that there was much in the novel that couldn't be shown to us on screen, whether it be for time or content. Distracting 3D and flat, stock characters mar the experience, but the story is still at its core interesting and watchable.