Monday, April 25, 2016

Wolf Totem :: 狼圖騰

Watched Chinese film 'Wolf Totem' directed by Jean-Jacques Annaud. Well, mainly to watch the wolves and sigh at the splendour of the Mongolian steppes. Was so tickled to read an article about the Mongolian wolf pups who were raised and trained for four years to be in the film, and after that, they had to be relocated to Canada after filming because they only understood commands in English. Hahahaha.

Adapted from Lü Jiamin's (his pseudonym is 'Jiang Rong'critically acclaimed (and government disapproved) 2004 novel 'Wolf Totem', the 2015 Chinese language film was years in the making. It's weird because Jean-Jacques Annaud's 'Seven Years in Tibet' is still banned in China. Even with a Chinese film company backing it, the French director had to grovel a little in order to get all the permits to film 'Wolf Totem'. The wolves were beautiful and savage; the winter, landscape and environment were bleak and majestic. Mongolia and its 草原 are ridiculously gorgeous.

Jean-Jacques Annaud's cinematography and dedication to authenticity and care of animals were faultless. To that end, I didn't think the director (and his team) went really deep into the political subtext and criticisms that form the essence of the book. It's probably intentional. The film chose to safely focus on ecological balances versus the pragmatic concerns of a vast country needing to feed its people and justice within its bureaucratic practices. 

With a load of reluctance, I dug out the book to re-read. Even though I love the idea of wolves, and as good as the narrative and words are, the book is a tough one to plough through. 姜戎,真名為'吕嘉民'的著作《狼圖騰》。Set in the years of the Cultural Revolution (文革时期), we follow Beijing students Yang Ke (楊克) and mainly Chen Zhen's (陳陣) observations when he's sent to live with the nomadic herders of Mongolia for two years. Every chapter describes an incident with the wolf packs roaming Inner Mongolia, their hunt for food and how the animals grew desperate as humans invade their foraging territory, urbanized the Mongolian steppes, polluted arable land and deplete the predators' natural prey. It's inevitable that the wolves begin attacking humans and their horses.


Packs of the Tibetan wolf or the woolly grey wolf roam these northern plains from Tibet to Mongolia. They're of course endangered, due to humans hunting them for their pelts and to drive them away from preying on domesticated herds of cattle and goats. The Gobi Bear is likely extinct. The numbers of khulan are low. Illegal hunting is flourishing and even though trading in animal parts and fur is illegal, nothing much is stopping the trends.

The Mongolian funeral customs of a 'sky burial', lesser practiced now as the usual burial beneath the ground or cremation rituals are adopted. Much of Mongolian traditional customs have eroded. Likewise, it's a touchy issue with the Chinese government. Tibet, bits of northern Yunnan, and Mongolia. I was lucky to have hung out in yurts for two weeks. Needless to say, I was also in love with the Mongolian plains, horses and the idea of free-spiritedness. All of which is only romantic to the traveler. I'm not sure what the Mongolians think. Very few lead the nomadic hunter-gatherer lifestyle now.



coboypb said...

I watched this while on the plane to/from Beijing last Dec. Glad I chose it over other movies, as I was touched by the storyline and teared at certain scenes.

imp said...

You must have teared at the scene when they were forced to fling wolf pups over the cliffs, and the humans had to comfort themselves that the pups would have a better afterlife with Tengri. :(