Jean-Jacques Annaud’s Wolf Totem hits screens this month. Aaron Fox-Lerner talks to the veteran French director about working with wolves and directing a Chinese production after being banned from the country.
As you may have guessed from his name, Jean-Jacques Annaud is not Chinese. That would hardly be noteworthy if it weren’t for the fact that he’s the director of a film that bears all the hallmarks of a Chinese prestige production. Shot in Mandarin and Mongolian with an entirely local cast, Wolf Totem is based on Jiang Rong’s Man Asian Literary Prize-winning 2004 novel of the same name, which by some estimates is the second bestselling Chinese book of all time, after Mao’s little red one. Not only is the film set during the Cultural Revolution, but it also directly addresses the sensitive topic of uneasy relations between Han Chinese and ethnic minorities.
So how did a Frenchman who had previously directed Hollywood films like Enemy at the Gates end up at the helm of a very Chinese production aimed at Chinese audiences?
‘I have heard that a few Chinese directors were approached. They obviously passed, I never asked why. I assume that I was offered the novel to direct because of my previous work with animals for The Bear and Two Brothers, and my respect and passion for Asia,’ says Annaud.
Having already made films about tigers and bears, Annaud apparently decided to add another terrifying deadly animal to that list, only to find them ‘worse than any other animal I have worked with. Wolves are so independent, so cunning, so stubborn! They can never be tamed. They remain wild and proud.’
Wolves obviously serve as an essential part of the novel by Jiang Rong (the pen name of Lü Jiamin), a semi-autobiographical account of being sent down to the countryside in the ’60s.Jiang’s main character must deal with the culture clash that comes from imposing settled Han Chinese structures onto nomadic Mongols, with the wolves of the Mongolian steppe serving as an essential metaphor for man’s relationship with nature as well as the wrong-headed attempts to change nature and the traditional lifestyles based around it.
Beyond his love of animals, it’s a story that Annaud found very appealing on a personal level. ‘It was something that touched me very much, because at the same time I was myself sent to Cameroon to teach cinema [as part of the French military service]. I was a very young man. I was 21, and just as it changed Jiang Rong’s life, the year that I spent in Cameroon changed my perspective of myself and of life,’ says Annaud. Wolf Totem’s ecological themes also dovetail neatly with many of his previous films, as well as his personal beliefs: ‘I love nature, and it’s essential right now to fight and preserve the planet.’
While most of Annaud’s previous work and his focus on nature and animals make Wolf Totem the perfect ft for him, there’s one film of his that caused a significant obstacle to him working in China. In 1997, he directed Seven Years in Tibet, in which Brad Pitt plays a real-life Austrian mountaineer who befriended and tutored the Dalai Lama until Chinese Communist forces conquered the region.
Unsurprisingly, the Chinese Government was less than pleased with the film, which is still officially banned in China. Annaud was also banned from entering the country. Obviously, that’s now changed. Why the Chinese government decided to lift the ban on Annaud is an unanswered question – literally, in our case, as he declined to respond to an emailed query from us on the matter.
Annaud’s acceptance into China as the director of one of its biggest new films certainly represents a turnaround in his relationship with the country, as well as making him the most prominent example of the increasingly common collaborations between foreign and Chinese film companies. This year alone has already seen the release of both Outcast and Dragon Blade, two different movies with Hollywood stars playing foreign warriors who venture into the Middle Kingdom. It’s not only Americans getting in on the act, either. Wolf Totem is hardly an anomaly, as French-Chinese co-productions have become more common. Last year, French filmmaker Philippe Muyl directed The Nightingale, which not only featured an all-Chinese cast and setting, but was even China’s official nomination for the Academy Awards.
The involvement of foreign filmmakers in China raises the issue of censorship, especially after MGM proactively changed the villains in its jingoistic 2012 film Red Dawn from Chinese to North Korean, over fears of losing access to the Chinese market. Annaud, however, insists that with Wolf Totem, there was no censorship, despite the film’s potentially controversial subject matter.
‘I have been given rare and total freedom,’ he tells us. ‘The movie you see is the one I wrote, cast, directed and edited without interference.’
While the making of Wolf Totem might have been a process free from Government or studio interference, it was still a long, difficult production. It took three years to raise and condition the three generations of Mongolian wolves used in the film, and another two years to train their actions. Despite the difficulty in making the film, Annaud remains extremely positive about the experience. ‘It has been a hard, very hard and long undertaking. We all did our best. This film is probably the warmest human experience I’ve had in my whole career.'
Wolf Totem is on general release from Thursday 19.