BluRay/DVD Reviews

WOLF TOTEM (Columbia Pictures)

By • Jan 23rd, 2016 •

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BluRay review by Roy Frumkes

Jean-Jacques Annaud is the French Werner Herzog. I told him that and he smiled broadly at the comparison. These two directors revel in biting off more than a normal film production can chew. Just watch QUEST FOR FIRE or THE BEAR from Annaud, and from Herzog – FITZCARRALDO or AGUIRRE, THE WRATH OF GOD – and you’ll know what I mean.

WOLF TOTEM is another animal odyssey undertaken by Annaud, based on a well-known, culturally-critical book by Jiang Rong. It takes place on the Chinese/Mongolian border, and shows the lives of the Mongolian herders, set during China’s Cultural Revolution when young urban students were sent to live with the inhabitants of the wild areas. A classic country-rat/city-rat story. The wild card, and the film’s major conflict, is the life-style the herders share with the roaming wolves, and the disruption that occurs when a student undertakes to save and raise a young wolf, from which little good comes.

I asked a Mongolian student of mine to watch the BluRay and report back about its veracity. She told me that she was moved to tears twice, and that it was an excellent translation of Rong’s book. This was good to hear, because as fond as I am of Annaud’s work, I found myself distanced from this one, not drawn into the story, and definitely unable to follow the intricacies of the plot as concern the mixed attitudes displayed toward the young wolf.

On a visual level, it’s beautifully filmed, with pleasing digital enhancement. For me, the cinematography, art direction, and locations were the most satisfying aspects of the production, and the BluRay captures them beautifully. There are a few special features included on the disc, but I wish there’d also been a commentary track. Annaud is great story-teller.

Now I don’t know if using a different kind of animal than one which is stipulated in the story constitutes the same politically-incorrect hiring practice, for instance, as using British and American actors instead of Egyptian actors for Ridley Scott’s recent biblical epic, EXODUS: GODS AND KINGS, but fair disclosure dictates that I inform you of the following – amidst all the wolves trained and used in the making of the film, there was also one dog on the payroll, who did stunt work for some of the wolves. Apparently the wolves were unable to do these stunts, but still…

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