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Movie REview

In ‘Wolf Totem’ it’s the call of the mild

Feng Shaofeng in Jean-Jacques Annaud’s “Wolf Totem.”
Feng Shaofeng in Jean-Jacques Annaud’s “Wolf Totem.”Columbia Pictures

In 1967, the year Jean-Jacques Annaud’s gorgeous, poetic, but narratively fragmented “Wolf Totem” takes place, the Cultural Revolution and the Red Guards unleashed chaos, suffering, and death across China. But apart from all this human suffering, an adorable cub called Little Wolf is the one who steals your heart.

True, the cute canid gets little competition from the human members of the cast, who seldom rise above stereotype. The stunning natural scenery also overwhelms the characters and the half-baked narrative. Annaud’s adaptation of Jiang Rong’s Chinese novel is a visual wonder but a dramatic dud, a cut-and-paste mess of plot snippets, illuminated by the occasional inspired visual conceit.

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An example of the latter occurs in an early scene in which a crane shot of a red bus rises to reveal endless rows of identical red buses. These head out in a caravan that dwindles down to a single crimson speck swallowed up by the vast green bowl of Inner Mongolia. It is a metaphor of civilized regimentation vanquished by the wild, worthy of John Ford.

In the bus, Chen Zhen (Feng Shaofeng), a Red Guard from Peking, arrives to teach the local nomads how to read and write. But once there the Mongol culture, the primal surroundings, and the wolves with whom the Mongols live in brutal harmony fascinate him. Disobeying the platitude-spouting clan leader, and without his knowledge, Chen rescues a wolf cub and raises him in secret.

That indiscretion indirectly opens the primeval paradise to the bane of modernity and upsets the natural balance. The other wolves, personified with amazing verisimilitude, seek vengeance for the kidnapping, not to mention for the depredations unleashed when a bespectacled commissar “modernizes” the settlement.

This conflict between nature and civilization was old long before Kevin Costner’s similar “Dances With Wolves.” Its resolution consoles those who benefit by that tragedy, a reassurance that despite the despoliation there will always be someone to care for a cute, helpless animal.

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Movie REview

★ ★

Wolf Totem

Directed by Jean-Jacques Annaud. Written by Alain Godard, Annaud, Lu Wei, and John Collee, based on the novel by Jiang Rong. Starring Feng Shaofeng, Shawn Dou, Ankhnyam Ragchaa. At Boston Common, suburbs. 121 minutes. PG-13 (disturbing images, violence involving animals, and brief sexuality). In Mandarin and Mongolian, with subtitles.

Peter Keough can be reached at petervkeough@gmail.com.