Don’t See Wolf Totem: It’s Terrible!
Every so often you see a film that is so misguided that you wish you could travel back to the meeting where the people who brought you the film decided to go ahead with the project. That way you could stop the tragic misuse of time, effort and money before it went so far.
Wolf Totem—or at least its American release– ought to have been stopped in a pitch meeting. I suspect that this film is going to cause a lot of backlash, partly because of the way that animals are treated in this film, and partly because it reminds people in America about the terrible things that happened in China during the cultural revolution.
The film is based on a semi-autobiographical Chinese best selling book that the New York Times hated. “It’s even more remarkable that a novel so relentlessly gloomy and ponderously didactic has become a huge best seller, second in circulation only to Mao’s little red book,” the review noted.
The book doesn’t gain anything plotwise in its translation to the screen. Characters are lightly drawn, poorly motivated and have all the nuanced thoughtfulness of a neon propaganda billboard meant to be see from a distant train.
Wolf Totem is the tale of two students who go from Bejing to Mongolia during the cultural revolution. I thought it was just going to be a pretty film (maybe dull) film about some wolves. I was wrong.
While the landscape photography of the film is stunning and the set design is lovely, that isn’t enough to make watching the film pleasant. Seeing the wolves hunted and killed—and the wolf cubs killed to keep the wolf population down– was totally horrifying. While the death scene in the Disney film Bambi was traumatic for many, the wolf deaths in Wolf Totem are far, far worse.
After the screening I read this article about the film’s wolf trainer Andrew Simpson, who said there was no outside oversight of the animals used in the film. So I don’t know if sheep were actually killed to make the dead sheep in the production, or if those were prop sheep.
The wolf trainer for this film pointed out that no vets visited the set of Wolf Totem during the animal intensive production.
I also had a hard time seeing the thoughtless government official making choices for the Mongol people, choices that went against their long history of living in nature with the grassland. It just reminded me of all the terrible things that have happened in China since WWII, and all of the ecologically disastrous choices that have been made in China’s push towards modernization.
If you want to consume a product about the cultural revolution in China, stay home and read Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress. It’s a much better work about the same period in Chinese history.
Wolf Totem is currently rated PG-13 by the MPAA. I think that rating should be changed to R, because of the violence against the animals.