Saturday, May 6, 2017

Wolf Totem

So, I watched a wolf movie 'cuz wolves are amazing (like, duh, y'know?) and while not the fanciest flick I've ever seen, it flicked my fancy enough to scan for the director's name at the end.
Jean-Jacques Annaud. Meh, never heard o' da mook, thinks I, before actually looking him up and realizing I've seen (and either liked or at least not actively disliked) half of his career.

Enemy at the Gates and Seven Years in Tibet were pleasant enough, in a prettified Hollywoodish sort of way.
I take some issue with The Name of the Rose for some of its deviations from the novel, but can't really hold the director at fault for crowd-pleasing story changes.
The Bear's probably his most unique movie qua movie, blissfully free of human babbling for the most part and can give Bambi a run for its money any day.
I would've remembered his work most easily if told "he directed Quest for Fire" which albeit inexcusably sexualized was among the best, if not even the best big-budget grunting hairy paleolithic apeman epic adventure film I've ever seen.
But let us return to our sheep-eaters.

Wolf Totem might as well be a poor attempt at "Dances With Wolves in Inner Mongolia" for its cheesy setup: city boy learns the mystical ways of savagely noble nomadic peoples. Complete with forbidden fruit love interest and old chieftains speaking dire prophecies. Watch enraptured as adequately competent actors politely resent centralized authority!

However, once you get past the awkward reiteration of various archetypes, the cinematography beautifully depicts old steppe scenery, from sweeping seas of grass to cataclysmic weather to costumes and mannerisms and old customs uncomfortable to modern sensibilities, to the wolves themselves. More than just pretty, the various scene-setting, panoramic and action sequences can at times be breathtaking. Also, while the script's eco-friendly moralizing is delivered in the usual trite and naive hippie fashion, let's keep in mind very little of it was actually fabricated.
That hungry wolves are more prone to attacking humans and their livestock in winter has been observed by every temperate region in the world for several thousand years.
Superstitious primitives really are prone to offering up surprisingly reliable and sophisticated practical rules for interacting with their immediate environment, not because their shaman-addled brains have the first clue as to underlying causes but because all the other superstitious primitives who didn't follow such best practices managed to stumble into early graves.
Finally, even without relying on this one novelist's semi-autobiographical account and apocalyptic visions, it should be no news to anyone that China's propensity for ecological disasters ranks second only to its utter disdain for human life.

Wolf Totem's no masterpriece, but it's an uncharacteristically honest (if limited) product of a political system trying to put up a show of atoning for its irredeemable sins, and thanks to its directing and technical skill quite a few of its scenes will stick with you.

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