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French Director’s Chinese Movie Balances Freedom With Compromise

In 2012, French movie director Jean-Jacques Annaud got a warm welcome in China after more than a dozen years as persona non grata there for having offended official Chinese Communist Party history with his 1997 film Seven Years in Tibet—the story of a German mountaineer’s sympathetic relationship with the young Dalai Lama before the monk became the exiled spiritual leader often referred to by Beijing in the years since as “a wolf in monk’s robes.”

What occasioned China’s late embrace of Annaud? Could it have been his agreement to lead the jury at the Shanghai International Film Festival in 2012, loaning the strictly controlled event the gravitas of his decades of glamorously global moviemaking (Quest for Fire [1981], The Bear [1988], Two Brothers [2004])? Or was it Annaud’s having signed up, in 2009, to direct what turned out, this past February, to be a blockbuster movie version of the bestselling Chinese novel Wolf Totem, a film releasing across the United States on today.

According to distributor Columbia Pictures, Wolf Totem will play in 3D at over 125 cinemas, including on 100 giant IMAX screens. The prints will carry the English subtitles that most American audiences (and Annaud himself) must rely on to understand the film’s Mandarin and Mongolian dialogue. The film tells the story of a young man of China’s majority ethnic group, the Han, who is sent from Beijing to the countryside to teach Mandarin to the nomadic herdsman of Inner Mongolia during the Cultural Revolution, a decade of tumult and paranoia under the rule of Mao Zedong. The Mongol shepherds live in tenuous harmony with nature on the vast grasslands of Inner Mongolia, but, reminiscent of many mid-century American cowboys-and-Indians movies, Wolf Totem the film tells of their capitulation in the face of the arrival of the mostly Han Chinese carrying messages of “civilization.”

For the director of many films that go to great lengths to capture the natural world and carry a message of mankind’s need to care better for our planet, Wolf Totem presented Annaud with the chance of a lifetime, a chance to raise and train a pack of wolves for three years—literally building a $1 million “motel” for the pups on the steppe. It was a chance to eschew computer generated imaging for the real thing, and a chance to film his tamed creations with the help of a giant crew.

“I’ve fought all my life to get this kind of freedom. You have to find people who agree to bet on the distant future. This is not common today, when cinema is something fast from which people want instant results,” Annaud told me before an August preview of the film at Asia Society New York.

Annaud said Wolf Totem would be China’s submission for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar given out each year by Hollywood’s council of wizards, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. (As Xinhua has not yet independently reported the film’s submission as fact, citing The Hollywood Reporter instead, the film’s submission is not yet official in the eyes of the Party).

While China’s is the fastest-growing movie market in the world, fuelled by swelling expendable income, an accompanying desire for variety in entertainment, and a mushrooming number of cinemas, never has a film from mainland China won a major-category Oscar. In 2000, Director Ang Lee, an American, saw his film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon win the Best Foreign Language Film prize on behalf of his parents’ homeland, the democratically self-governed island of Taiwan. Wolf Totem represents the first major motion picture shot by a non-Chinese director in the Chinese language to get a major release in what is, for now anyway, still the largest movie market on earth: North America. And its release, just in time for a U.S. state visit in late September by Xi Jinping, China’s allegedly Hollywood movie-loving president, hardly seems a coincidence.

Asked if he ever felt used as a pawn in a campaign, under pressure from high up in the Chinese Communist Party to portray China’s modern history and its treatment of minorities in a favorable light, the director was direct: “Absolutely not,” Annaud said.

“Not only was I asked to make the best possible movie, I was asked to teach,” Annaud said, recounting that his film topped China’s box office during the peak Lunar New Year moviegoing season in a week when fare included a typical raft of homegrown martial arts films and rom-coms and big-budget imports from Hollywood. February, the month Wolf Totem premiered at the Berlin Film Festival and was released in China, China’s overall movie ticket receipts were greater than those taken in by U.S. cinemas for the first time ever, solidifying the Frenchman’s place as a part of Chinese movie market history.

After its screening at Asia Society in August, Wolf Totem drew steady applause and Annaud rose from his chair and paced the stage to describe what it was like working with the animals—one of whom kissed him on the mouth daily, he said—and how he survived a grueling shooting schedule in often difficult natural surroundings.

Without a doubt, the film is stunning to look at, but a few veterans of the Beijing foreign press corps in the audience tried to get below the surface to the director’s motives, pushing him to address where he stood vis-à-vis the politics of media making in modern China.

Barbara Demick, formerly the Beijing Bureau Chief of The Los Angeles Times, asked Annaud to explain an apology he, in an earlier interview, had denied making about Seven Years in Tibet. “Why was [the apology] necessary?” asked Demick.

Annaud: At some point in preproduction, I was still writing the [Wolf Totem] screenplay, there was a Chinese controversy on the Internet. It was said that I was very intimate with the Dalai Lama, and that I was supporting of independence of Tibet, which I am not, and I did write [the apology]. I must insist on the point that the Dalai Lama is not in favor of the independence of Tibet. So, today, I can say that, you know, Tibet cannot survive without being either with China or with India. I think it’s irreversible and there are battles that cannot be won. That’s my point of view.

Demick: Who asked you to write the apology?

Annaud: No one important, really. It was just to stop this silly thing, which was untrue and was going against the work. I felt it was very bad for the project [Wolf Totem]. It also was attacking [Wolf Totem novelist] Jiang Rong, and, by the way, I never got in trouble. One of the reasons I was given so much freedom was that I liked the Chinese minorities, that I have great respect for Chinese minorities—that includes the Tibetans, that includes the Mongols, that includes the other 56 minorities. I think that loving Tibetans is not contradictory with loving China.

I then asked Annaud about a scene in the film that instantly brought to my mind an analogy to the recent wave of self-immolations by more than 140 ethnic Tibetans across Southwest China in protest against Chinese oppression of their way of life. In the scene, a wolf, hunted to the point of exhaustion, jumps off a cliff in an apparent suicide. “Is that true to nature?” I asked about the wolf, without mentioning the connection I’d made in my head with Tibetans. (Note here and in the video of the event, starting at 33:30, that Annaud himself makes the connection, at first saying “Tibetan” where he means “Mongol”).

Annaud: Thank you for asking this question: It's a scene that's described in the novel and there are two interpretations: The Tibetan interpretation is that wolves have so much dignity that they refuse to be skinned because they don't want to be presented to God without their fur coat, therefore they prefer to decide for their death. I insist, this is the Mongol belief. When I shot that scene, every Mongol on the set was saying, 'This is true.' Now, the other explanation is pragmatic. When you have no choice, like on September 11 in this city, when people jumped out of the windows, was it a suicide or was it a hope that something miraculous was going to happen? When you're certain you're going to die for sure, maybe there is a little hope in jumping and trying to survive ... Suicide is not something known and accepted by biologists. But once again, we are here giving the image, and the interpretation is dual.

Sitting in the audience, Robert Barnett, Director of the Modern Tibetan Studies Program at Columbia University, wondered aloud to me why Annaud felt the need to press home in public the realignment of his views about Tibet with those of the Chinese Communist Party. “Why couldn’t he have simply let the question go?”