Wolf Totem: The Movie They Forgot to Make
By Eric Abrahamsen, published
So I saw Wolf Totem last night, and I think stayed awake for enough of it to be able to write a short review.
A bit ago Bruce posted some thoughts and questions about the film, focusing as he does on the ethnic minority angle, and asking about its depiction of Mongolia and Mongolians.
Having seen the film, I can say with some confidence: it’s not really about Mongolia at all.
By which I mean, this is a storyline that has been cooked down to its essentials until it looks more like a film-school exercise in story-boarding than it does a real story. It ended up being a prototype for any and all films that follow the “civilized man visits wise natives and learns their wisdom but doesn’t get the girl” arc. Sure it’s set in Mongolia, and sure its got wolves, but all the plot particulars are so rudimentary they feel like placeholders that the filmmakers later forgot to replace with actual content. The Mongolians could just be blank blobs tagged INSERT NOBLE SAVAGES HERE. Chen Zhen might have a sign on his chest reading INSERT NAIVE IDEALIST HERE.
Mongolian is spoken, in exactly the same quantities as Lakota was spoken in Dances With Wolves, or Na’vi in Avatar. In the same quantities, and to the same purpose. Those movies – and a barrel more like them – fleshed out the civilization-meets-savagery theme into something that (even if you objected to it) had specificity, and the emotional weight that comes with that. Wolf Totem remains an insubstantial Platonic ideal.
Even the wolf scenes, sad to say. I did enjoy the night storm scene with the wolf-pack chasing the horses. The shot of the horses the next morning was the film’s most arresting visual image. And yet… the “thrilling” wolf scenes were filmed in an entirely generic way. The cinematography and the score were more appropriate to Avatar’s scenes of dragon-riding or attack helicopters than wild animals. Wolves have their own pace, their own tension, their own menace, and the camera failed to find that.
Try reading this Q&A with Jiang Rong and you’ll see what I’m talking about: his comments on the differences between the film and his book immediately restore a sense of depth and reality to the story. And no wonder:
- Discussion of ethnic conflict removed.
- Doomed cross-cultural romance added.
- Death of wolf-cub removed.
This last is probably most revealing. Jiang Rong’s first explanation is “Westerners would not be able to bear this. They would think this was too cruel, and the animal rights people might protest.” Passing over that non-sequitur, we come to what feels like the real reason:
…the parts of the film that include the cub are pretty superficial. People were very moved by the wolf cub in the book because I wrote about it in great detail. So when the wolf cub dies in the book, many readers cried. Even I cried while I was writing it. The wolf cub’s personality is very strong in the book up until its death, so it is a very complete chain of events.
But since the cub wasn’t very prominent in the early parts of the film, to have this shocking thing happen to it wouldn’t be very logical.
In essence: “We took out the most emotionally affecting part of the film, because the film doesn’t really have any emotion in it.”
I left the theater with the weird feeling that I hadn’t seen a film at all, merely a description of one.