In a clash of cultures, this sweeping Chinese epic traces a young man’s journey and the lessons he learns about conservation and wildlife. Rating 2½ stars out of 4.

Share story

Somewhere between “Planet Earth” and a historical drama lies “Wolf Totem,” a sweeping Chinese epic from French director Jean-Jacques Annaud.

Taking place in the throes of Communist fervor in 1967 China, the film traces the journey of a young man from Beijing discovering the natural, spiritual mysteries of Inner Mongolia. The lessons he learns about conservation and wildlife are ones that ring true even today.

Based on the smash hit 2004 novel by Jiang Rong, the story follows Chen Zhen (Feng Shaofeng) and Yang Ke (Shawn Dou), two eager young men from the big city who find themselves in Mongolia, living with a nomadic tribe of shepherds, a long way from home.

Movie Review ★★½  

‘Wolf Totem,’ with Feng Shaofeng, Shawn Dou, Yin Zhusheng, Ba Sen Zha Bu. Directed by Jean-Jacques Annaud. 121 minutes. Rated PG-13 for disturbing images and violence involving animals, and for brief sexuality, Several theaters

After a dangerous experience wandering off the path, Chen Zhen quickly becomes enamored of the packs of wolves with whom the nomads share their land. They have a symbiotic relationship, sharing food and resources, and the nomads have a deep spiritual respect for the power of the wolves — as they should.

As industrial forces rumble into the land, looking to exploit natural resources for the greater good of the republic, the delicate balance is upset and all-out war breaks out between the wolves and humans.

Complicating matters is Chen Zhen’s puppy, Little Wolf, a cub he secreted away from a den in hopes of raising on his own.

As cultures clash, the mighty wolves have to contend with forces far greater than they are — guns, jeeps and mass destruction.

The greatest aspect of “Wolf Totem” is the gorgeous, sweeping cinematography that captures the landscape in breathtaking aerial shots and crystal-clear color.

The story has its touching moments but dissolves into disjointed melodrama in the back half of the film. The attempted eradication of the wolves is so heartbreaking that the explosions, attacks and illness that befall our characters feel over the top in comparison.

Still, Feng’s performance as the young student evolving and growing up in front of our eyes is a compelling one, as well as his relationship with Little Wolf (though it often seems he needs some training himself).

The message contained herein is a powerful one, stressing the idea that the only way to live is to live together. It’s a concept we could still stand to ponder.