Ten years ago, when producers at the state-run Beijing Forbidden City Film Corporation began searching for a director for the movie adaptation of the Chinese novel “Wolf Totem” by Jiang Rong, they had no plans to look beyond China’s homegrown stable. It was a Chinese story, after all, written by a Chinese author, and had sold more than a million copies in the country in the year since its publication in 2004. (It has sold four million more there since.)
But almost every big-name Chinese director the producers approached, including Zhang Yimou and Ang Lee, turned them down, some citing their reluctance to work with wolves. It probably didn’t help that the novel, a not-so-thinly-veiled critique of Chinese civilization, dealt with topics deemed sensitive by the government, such as ethnic relations in China and the environmental costs of the country’s breakneck industrialization.
After several years of searching, producers finally found their man: Jean-Jacques Annaud. The choice was an unexpected one, since it was widely reported that the French director had been banned from China for his 1997 film “Seven Years in Tibet.”
The movie “Wolf Totem” finally arrived in theaters in China on Thursday, the first day of the Chinese New Year, and will open in France on Wednesday. (Sony’s Columbia Pictures has acquired its North America distribution rights.)
The book — reported to be the best-selling contemporary novel of all time in China — tells the story of a young Han Chinese student named Chen Zhen (played in the movie by Feng Shaofeng), who goes to live among nomadic herdsman in Inner Mongolia during the Cultural Revolution. There he learns about nomadic culture and becomes fascinated with wolves, even capturing and raising a cub.
Both the film and the book depict the encroachment of the Han Chinese population on the Mongol plains, which leads to the killing off of the wolves and the gradual destruction of the grasslands.
“There has without question been no one single novel in China with as great of an impact before or since ‘Wolf Totem,”’ said Jo Lusby, managing director of Penguin China, which published the book in English.
The book, which is semi-autobiographical, quickly resonated across the demographic spectrum in China. Political dissenters found in it anti-Communist Party messages, for example, while corporations gave it to employees to encourage them to work together like wolves. The book has also been translated into 39 languages for 110 countries. “It was one of those black swan events in publishing,” Ms. Lusby said.
Despite the book’s political undertones, the process of making the $45 million Chinese-French co-production was a relatively smooth one by most accounts — somewhat unexpected, some said, given Mr. Annaud’s unflattering portrayal of the People’s Liberation Army’s 1949 invasion of the region in “Seven Years in Tibet.”
“The idea that a story many viewed as critical of the Chinese government would be directed by a foreigner who had previously made a film that criticized China’s policies is rather astonishing,” Rob Cain, who runs Chinafilmbiz.com, a blog about China’s film industry, wrote in an e-mail. But in this case, Mr. Cain said, Mr. Annaud’s directorial experience and technical expertise may have superseded his past actions. “China’s film industry is awash in cash, hungry for success, and eager to partner with people who possess know-how and international access,” Mr. Cain added.
In an interview, Mr. Annaud acknowledged that he, too, was taken aback when representatives of the Beijing Forbidden City production company approached him at his office in Paris. He said the producers told him: “China has changed and we are practical people. We don’t know how to do what you do and we need you.”
La Peikang, chairman of the state-owned China Film Group, which took over the film’s production duties from Beijing Forbidden City, said that while “Seven Years in Tibet” had indeed “hurt the feelings of the Chinese people” only the film — and not the director himself — had been banned in China. “It was important to us to find someone who could make this movie well and tame the wolves,” said Mr. La, citing Mr. Annaud’s previous experience working with animals. “With regard to films that he made in the past, I don’t think this is very important.”
Mr. Annaud said he was given “carte blanche” throughout the process. He also insisted on making the movie in Mandarin and Mongol (not English, as the film’s producers had suggested) and cast both Chinese and Mongol actors.
And just as many have expressed surprise that Mr. Jiang’s original book was able to escape the red pens of censors, Mr. Annaud said he was surprised at the apparent leniency of China’s censors. “The film went through censorship with no problem at all,” he said. “I enjoyed a level of freedom that is almost inexplicable.” Throughout the creative process, Mr. Annaud said he sought input from Jiang Rong, the pen name of Lü Jiamin, a 78-year-old retired professor at the China Institute of Industrial Relations in Beijing who spent time in prison for participating in the 1989 Tiananmen Square democracy protests.
A French beret worn by one of the Han Chinese characters in the film, for example, was nixed by Mr. Jiang. (“Are you kidding me?” he said. “During the Cultural Revolution if you were seen wearing a beret you would be subject to criticism.”) Mr. Jiang said he also signed off on major changes to the plot, such as the inclusion of a love story between the main character, Chen Zhen, and a Mongol woman, played by Ankhnyam Ragchaa, as well as a reworking of the film’s ending to make it more uplifting.
“The book is the book and the film is the film,” said Mr. Jiang, who won the inaugural Man Asian Literary Prize in 2007 for the English translation of the book.
Shot on location in Inner Mongolia, the 3-D film is packed with stunning vistas and action scenes featuring real Mongol wolves that were trained over three years — making the film’s message about the ecological perils of modern China’s development all the more vivid.
“My fear was it was just going to end up being a pretty film about animals,” said Ms. Lusby of Penguin China. “But it was a lot more blunt than I’d expected it to be on the environmental side of it. I was really quite shocked.”
Written by AMY QIN on February 23, 2015 for The New York Times.