Wolf Totem (film)
|Directed by||Jean-Jacques Annaud|
|Based on||Wolf Totem
by Lu Jiamin
|Music by||James Horner|
China Film Group
|Distributed by||China Film Group (China)
Mars Distribution (France)
Wolf Totem is an upcoming Chinese-language drama film based on the 2004 Chinese semiautobiographical novel of the same name by Lu Jiamin. The film is directed by French director Jean-Jacques Annaud. According to Annaud, the producers sought to produce a film adaptation of the book but did not want to use a Chinese or U.S. director. They had also wanted a film to be released in time for the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing. Annaud began development of the project in 2009. By April 2013, the lead roles were cast, and with a production budget of $38 million, filming began in Inner Mongolia, where the book is set. Annaud is filming in 3D, and the film is scheduled to be released on February 4, 2015.
In 1969, student Chen Zen is sent from Peking (now Beijing) in China to the Chinese region of Inner Mongolia to teach shepherds. Instead, he learns about the shepherds and the bond they share with the wolves, a bond that is threatened by a government apparatchik.
Wolf Totem is based on the 2004 Chinese semi-autobiographical novel Wolf Totem written by Lu Jiamin under the pseudonym Jiang Rong. French director Jean-Jacques Annaud adapted the film, which was produced by China Film Group, Edko Films, and Reperage. Chinese censors had allowed the book to be published, and it became a bestseller in China. The Los Angeles Times reported that many were surprised by the novel's lack of censorship. The newspaper said, "The protagonist expresses contempt for the group-think that China's majority Han ethnicity forces on ethnic minorities and disdains the Confucian principles that the Communist Party has recently revived in its political rhetoric even in the 21st century." Rights to the novel were acquired by Beijing Forbidden City Film Corporation in 2004, and in 2005, it entered an agreement with New Zealand director Peter Jackson and his company Weta Digital to co-produce a film adaptation. Production with Jackson did not take place, and Beijing Forbidden City struggled to find a new director to film the adaptation. According to Annaud, the producers sought to produce a film adaptation to release in time for the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing. In 2008, English- and French-language versions of the novel were published. Jiamin and his friends at the production company were familiar with Annaud's films and approached the director for the task. Annaud said of their choosing a French director for adapting the novel, "They said a Chinese director can't say these things; that it's too sensitive. They didn't want an American. I'm sort of neutral. And I have made a lot of films with animals." The director read the book in French, and the story appealed to him. He said, "It has been my conviction to find true stories about the environment." He signed a contract with Zhang Qiang, the Beijing Forbidden City Film's CEO.
Annaud had filmed Seven Years in Tibet (1997), which is banned in China. Annaud himself was also banned from entering the country at the time. Chinese authorities took issue with how Seven Years in Tibet portrayed the People's Liberation Army in their invasion of Tibet in 1949 and that Jetsun Pema, the sister of the exiled 14th Dalai Lama, was cast in the film. Annaud was able to have his personal ban lifted, though Seven Years in Tibet is still banned in China to date. Variety commented that it was ironic for China Film Group, which is state-backed, to produce Wolf Totem while Seven Years in Tibet was still banned. Annaud said he was mistaken in assuming that it was acceptable to cover historical conflicts in retrospect, like with France, Algeria, and the Algerian War. The director said, "My mistake was to think that it was the same in China regarding Tibet. I realize now that it was seen as something very intrusive, which was not my intention." He said he did not have to apologize for directing the film. He said, "I offended China with Seven Years and it's quite something that after this we have decided not to speak about it. I'm very grateful; it says a lot about China today." The director described Wolf Totem as "much more complicated, fascinating, amusing" than others realize. The director said he would not have made the film if Chinese authorities did not like it. The Guardian said in 2009, "The Associated Press reported that Annaud would be forced to make an apolitical interpretation of the novel in order to pass Chinese film censorship, with the Beijing Forbidden City Film Company's statement about the project avoiding the book's political messages to describe it as 'an environmental protection-themed novel about the relationship between man and nature, man and animal'."
By August 2009, Annaud began developing the project and scouting locations in China with Jiamin, whom he had befriended. The filmmakers acquired wolves to raise and train in preparation for filming. The director worked on the first outline with writing partner Alain Godard, who died before they finished it. Annaud brought a draft to China in mid-2012. Chinese screenwriter Lu Wei wrote the second and third drafts of the screenplay. The draft was translated to French for Annaud to give feedback, and it was subsequently translated back to Chinese for Jiamin to revise. Preliminary filming of Wolf Totem began in July 2012.
By 2013, Qiang had moved on to become vice president of China Film Group, which now backed the film. Bill Kong, CEO of Edko Films, had joined the project in 2010. In April 2013, a co-production deal between China Film Group and Edko Films was signed at the Beijing Film Market. The deal gave the film a production budget of $38 million. Actors Feng Shaofeng and Shawn Dou were cast in the leading roles. The film marked the first Chinese production by a non-Chinese director. Annaud filmed Wolf Totem through various seasons in Inner Mongolia, the region of China where the book is set. The film was shot in 3D. The website China.org.cn reported, "The director and his team had to overcome harsh difficulties in the wild, such as low temperatures, extremely bad weather, [and] mosquito swarm attacks."
In the novel and the film, Chen Zen is sent to work on the steppes of Inner Mongolia (a region of China) during the Cultural Revolution, and a government official orders all wolves in the region to be killed. The filmmakers used real Eurasian wolves (Canis lupus lupus) for the film. Annaud had experience filming with animals in his previous films The Bear (1988) and Two Brothers (2004), working with bears and tigers respectively. He said dogs were traditionally used to depict wolves in film but that he sought to use actual wolves to show authentically their hunting method.
Annaud and others visited zoos around China and acquired wolf pups for the film. He said, "Wolves in Mongolia are very different from North American wolves. They are brown with bright eyes. They are more the color of lions." The filmmakers hired Scottish animal trainer Andrew Simpson to raise and train the wolves, which ultimately numbered 35. Since China has a dwindling wolf population, the government did not allow any wolves to leave. Simpson moved from his ranch in Canada to China to train the wolves to sit, snarl, and fight on cue. Four bases were built in Inner Mongolia and in Beijing for raising and training the wolves. Training revolved around feeding the wolves. They had a diet of dried dog food and chopped chicken, but during training, Simpson fed them "ruby red cubes" of fresh meat. From August 2009 onward, 18 months were spent to raise and train the wolves. The wolves were kept under control behind long, double fences and were trained not to avoid the cameras. While Annaud filmed live footage of the wolves, he plans to use technology in post-production to create scenes that would normally be impossible to film.
The film is scheduled to be released in theaters on February 4, 2015. China Film Group will distribute the film in China, and Mars Distribution will distribute it in France. In May 2013, Annaud came from Inner Mongolia to briefly attend the 2013 Cannes Film Festival in France and screened footage from Wolf Totem, which was still in production. In April 2014, he hosted a press conference at the fourth Beijing International Film Festival and shared filmmaking details.
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