In his 1997 film "Seven Years in Tibet," French director Jean-Jacques Annaud didn't mince words about the Chinese Communist Party. The based-on-a-true-story movie, starring Brad Pitt as an Austrian mountaineer who befriends the adolescent Dalai Lama in the years before China's 1950 invasion of the plateau, ended with several blunt title cards:
"One million Tibetans have died as a result of the Chinese occupation of Tibet. Six thousand monasteries were destroyed," read one. Said the next: "In 1959, the Dalai Lama was forced to flee to India. He still lives there today, trying to promote a peaceful resolution with the Chinese. In 1989, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize."
The movie so rankled Beijing that not only was the film banned in China but Annaud, Pitt and his costar, David Thewlis, were also declared personae non gratae and unwelcome to enter the country. And to this day, Beijing continues to be extremely touchy about Tibet and the Dalai Lama (whom they regard as a separatist; China even protested President Obama's recent meeting with the exiled spiritual leader).
But somewhat surprisingly, Annaud's Chinese exile has ended. Not only has he been allowed back into the country, but he has made a new film here — a $40-million, 3-D adaptation of the Chinese novel "Wolf Totem" that arrived in mainland theaters just in time for the Chinese New Year holiday last week. The movie, which has earned $32 million so far, will roll out in France next, and Sony has distribution rights in the United States and a number of other markets.
The story, set during the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s, centers on a young Beijing intellectual's fascination with the wolves he encounters when he's sent to teach Mandarin to minority nomadic herders in the majestic, scenic grasslands of Inner Mongolia.
On one hand, the wildlife drama is a natural for Annaud, who has previously made compelling stars of vicious fauna in his films "The Bear" and the tiger story "Two Brothers."
But the bleak, semi-autobiographical novel by Jiang Rong — a democracy activist who was jailed after the Tiananmen Square massacre — is fraught with potential political tripwires. Unexpectedly approved by censors, the book, published in 2004, became a bestseller. The story, in part, is a denunciation of ecologically disastrous government "modernization" schemes. But like "Seven Years," it is also a critique of majority Han Chinese chauvinism vis-à-vis ethnic minorities.
Unlike in Annaud's Tibet film, the Communist cadres in "Wolf" aren't arrogantly stomping on Buddhist mandalas or mowing down monks with firearms. But when they order the local herdsmen to snatch wolf cubs from their dens and kill them, and foolishly try to introduce farming and industry to the steppe, they hardly come off as benevolent, much less intelligent, leaders.
Annaud said he was as surprised as anyone to be approached by Jiang and a Chinese production team about adapting the book for the big screen.
"I was aware of the novel and had read some excerpts in the French press. But I remember saying to myself, this was something I'd love to do, but of course it's not going to be for me," recalled Annuad, 71, who said the book reminded him of his own sojourn in the 1960s as a young man to Cameroon, where he witnessed misguided and destructive agricultural "development" programs implemented by French agronomists.
Reminding Jiang and his colleagues of China's official reception for "Seven Years," the director said: "Those charming people just smiled and said, well, we have changed, China has changed. … We don't know how to do what you do. Therefore, we need you." Annaud said he was never asked to apologize for or renounce "Seven Years."
"This is the — should I say — the Oriental politeness: You don't talk about things that may put your partner in an uneasy position," Annaud said. "So, no, we don't talk about it." The director still stands by "Seven Years," adding, diplomatically and carefully, that he sees a common thread between that work and "Wolf Totem."
"I am pleased that I had this positive feeling for this minority of China. I think the beauty of China … is that it is a country of diverse culture. I think we all have to learn together and respect each other. This is one of the messages of this 'Wolf Totem.' It is respecting people who speak a different language and have different ways of living. It is important for all of us."
Though "Wolf" can certainly be read in a political fashion, it is first and foremost a story of man and nature that required extraordinary preparation and logistical feats starting in 2008. Actual shooting lasted 160 days over a year and a half, from mid-2012 to late 2013.
The production team spent years finding, raising and training a group of wolves in China under the direction of Canada-based trainer Andrew Simpson. Annaud said he and his crew drove nearly 25,000 miles in a four-wheel drive searching for the perfect unspoiled landscapes.
But nature didn't always cooperate. When snow failed to materialize for one epic blizzard scene, the production had to rent 18 large trucks and send them 1,200 miles away to get snow. In the course of filming, the mercury dipped as low as minus-30 degrees, with winds of 50 mph; his cinematographer lost feeling in his feet and has never recovered.
"It was madness," Annaud said.
A meticulously choreographed seven-minute sequence — which sees a pack of wolves attacking an equine herd during a night snowstorm — took six weeks to film using a complex mix of live wolves and horses, puppet animals, drones, cranes, a 500-foot blue screen and CGI.
"It combined all of the most difficult things — shooting with animals, shooting at night, shooting in the blizzard, shooting with two species that hate each other. So that was, on paper, a very complicated scene. Plus we had to make sure that no animal would get in danger," said Annaud, showing off his elaborate storyboards for the sequence. "It's exciting because it requires all the tricks in the book. I love it; it's a challenge."
Post-production movie magic was needed to digitally remove trainers and fences from the shots, but a vast majority of the action is real, enhanced in three dimensions.
"What I wanted was the real interconnection. If you put a pack of wolves and a herd of horses running together, you get intense expressions from the wolves. In their eyes, they are woooo," said Annaud, making the sound of a crazed beast. "Doing it in the computer gives you a cartoonish emotion. The goal for me was 98.5% real shots."
Asked whether censors insisted he remove anything from the script or the film, Annaud said authorities raised questions about three scenes — including the killing of the wolf cubs — but that he was allowed to retain them.
The movie is an official Chinese-French co-production, and its backers have high hopes that visual spectacle and the conservation theme will entice audiences beyond the mainland. Annaud says previews in France have been enthusiastic but calls the entire endeavor "a daring experiment."
"I found the book very universal," says Annaud. "It would be great if this story can move people around the world."