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film review

The mov opens with a depiction of Chairman Mao’s forced relocations, with city boys Chen Zhen (Feng Shaofeng) and Yang Ke (Shawn Dou) bussed from Beijing to the Mongolian steppe, to learn farm work in exchange for teaching Mandarin.Courtesy of Columbia Pictures

The modern Chinese blockbuster is an odd fish. Like pretty much everything in modern China, their big-budget national cinema works rather obviously to advance the position of the People's Republic as a globalizing force: a world power, a major in player in all things. Hollywood blockbusters of the Marvel Studios mould cast Chinese stars in bit parts in order to bait audiences of the second-largest global movie market (and to appeal to the government functionaries responsible for approving which U.S. movies open in China). And homegrown Chinese productions increasingly rope in international stars (or "stars") in order to broaden their global appeal.

Take, for example, the recent historical action epic Dragon Blade, which casts a top-billed Jackie Chan alongside John Cusack, Adrien Brody, French pop star Lorie Pester and South Korean pop star Yoo Seung-jun. Whether you've seen Dragon Blade – or even heard of it – hardly matters. The film has already more than doubled its budget in China alone.

The historical drama Wolf Totem is an even odder case. Based on the popular Chinese semi-autobiographical of the same name – proof positive that franchising and tent-poling aren't uniquely Hollywood concerns – about a Beijing twentysomething relocated to Mongolia during Mao's Cultural Revolution, the film feels deliberately configured to court an audience beyond mainland China. It's directed by Frenchman Jean-Jacques Annaud, who helmed Hollywood adventure pics Enemy at the Gates, The Name of the Rose and Seven Years in Tibet (which was banned in China). And it features a score by the late James Horner, whose soaring soundtracks enlivened some of Hollywood's biggest blockbusters (Titanic, Avatar, et cetera).

Wolf Totem wants to look and feel like those Hollywood movies we all "know and love." But something ends up lost in translation. Its aspirations of looking and feeling recognizable end up uncomfortable and embarrassing. Sort of like when Nicolas Cage chases a big cheque to Japan to appear in ad for a company that manufactures Pachinko machines.

The story opens with an especially cheery depiction of Chairman Mao's forced relocations, with wide-eyed city boys Chen Zhen (Feng Shaofeng) and Yang Ke (Shawn Dou) bussed from Beijing to the Mongolian steppe, to learn farm work in exchange for teaching Mandarin. Within months of their two-year term, Chen develops a quasi-religious fascination with the local herds of wolves. The wizened Mongolian patriarch compares the wolves to Genghis Khan, that mightiest of historical rapists and pillagers, without really interrogating the legitimacy of such claims. Chen's starry-eyed romancing of the local wolves, and the Mongolian nomads he's living amongst, is tested by the arrival of a hard-nosed government bureaucrat (you can tell he's a heartless apparatchik because he's wearing big glasses) organizing a cull of the wolves in order to score pelts for fashion-savvy foreigners.

Essentially a culture clash between the calculating Han Chinese and the environmentalist Mongolian tribes, the film offers an oddly anti-Communist vision for a state-sponsored blockbuster that's already been named as China's official Oscar entrant. Still, even its apparent hostility to fussy state officialdom is undercut by a watered-down pandering to foreign audiences, in the form of the insistent swelling of Horner's score, Annaud's knowingly "sweeping" direction, and a hammy plot bound to elicit eye rolls from even those diehard audiences typically bewitched by soaring, swelling, sweeping, saccharine message movies.

Wolf Totem feels, weirdly, not like a product of China or Mongolia or Hollywood (or France), but of nowhere at all.