French director Jean-Jacques Annaud and the cast and crew of "Wolf Totem," including actors Feng Shaofeng, Shawn Dou promote at the premiere in Beijing on February 4, 2015. [China.org.cn]
After producer Wang Weimin failed to get real wolves tamed at first, he wanted to give up. But he saw Canadian animal trainer Andrew Simpson's name in a French movie "Wolf" on a flight later, which actually saved the project.
"When the director called him, Simpson paused in a calm silence, and then said, 'I've been waiting for your call for three years,'" Wang remembered.
French director Jean-Jacques Annaud, famous for his movies "The Bear" (1988) and "L'amant" (1992), is billed as the man who knows exactly how to shoot films featuring wild animals. Simpson is one of the most reputed animal trainers who can train wolves. Both Simpson and Annaud read the original book of "Wolf Totem" when it came out and decided to do the project somehow, but waited for three years to get connected.
When Simpson joined the crew, he spent four years raising and training three generations of real Mongolian wolves from births in Beijing and Inner Mongolia. During the time, Annaud became even more fascinated by "Wolf Totem" and even gave up directing "Life of Pi," a film featuring a tiger later made by Ang Lee.
"When I read the book ('Wolf Totem'), I found it a fabulous emotional epic," Annaud said at the press conference held in Beijing on Wednesday.
As for why he decided to do the film even when he had only read one third of the book, the 71-year-old director said, "We have experience shooting bears, tigers and also people. In one of my recent movies 'Enemy at the Gate,' it's about snipers. They are hunters, and wolves are hunters, so I was familiar with the world. It was a big challenge, but we in this movie business love to do movies that are impossible. This is why all of us, producers, directors, actors and crew, choose to be in this crazy business, and why we are happy."
"When you see the movie you will understand that it is not easy to do such a movie, where 98 percent of what you see is real wolves, which are very very dangerous and untamable," he added. He praised the trainers and said they have devoted a large amount of effort to train wolves but at the same time, keep their wild nature. They built long double fences to keep the 35 wolves from three generations under control.
The leading actor Feng Shaofeng even cultivated a deep emotional connection with a young wolf and its fellows. The wolves were set free after production ended, and were sent to Canada to live in the wild.
"Wolf Totem" was prepared and went into production over a period of 10 years. The actual filming began in July 2012 with production budget of US$38 million. Chinese and Mongolian actors Feng Shaofeng, Shawn Dou, Ankhnyam Rachaa, Batdorj-in Baasanjab and Yin Zhusheng star in the film, which portrays the story of people and a wolf pack in Inner Mongolia.
Set in 1967 during the Cultural Revolution, "Wolf Totem" tells the story of a student sent from the city to the Inner Mongolian steppe for re-education. He lives with the nomads, and develops a respect for freedom and nature, and becomes fascinated with the wolves. Although the film harmlessly touches on the wrong policies of the Cultural Revolution, ecological ruins and issues of environment protection, Chinese censors gave the project the green light without changing anything in Annaud's script.
Annaud filmed "Wolf Totem" in 3D through various seasons (including two winters) for 160 days in Inner Mongolia.
To add to an already impressive film, legendary James Horner ("Braveheart," "Titanic") composed original music for "Wolf Totem" and rock singer Wang Feng sang the theme song "Song Of Redemption."
After the advance screenings, "Wolf Totem," a coproduction between China and France encourages views to rethink the relationships between man and nature, received rave reviews from critics and audiences.
The author of the book Lyu Jiamin (under the pseudonym Jiang Rong), though absent from the premiere as usual, as he refuses to attend any awards ceremonies or publicity activities, wrote a note for the premiere to praise the final cut of the movie: "When I looked at the grassland where I lived in my youth on the big screen, I fell in love with it as I saw my first love. Now I'm a man, nearly 70 years old, but my 'lover' from a half century ago, is still like a sacred young girl with raw beauty powered by youth. This is the beauty that should be cherished most, and this is the beauty I wholeheartedly recommend to audiences."
With its amazing portrayal of wolves, the Chinese novel "Wolf Totem," published in 2004, ranked among the top 10 best-selling books for nearly six years and sold 6 million copies. The book also has international appeal, as it was translated into over 30 languages and has been sold in more than 100 countries. It has received more than 10 literary prizes including the first Man Asian Literary Prize in 2007. Jiang helped director Annaud with the adaptation and allowed him to add a love story to the script. The two have become good friends.
The movie scheduled for general release in China on Feb. 19 with a limited run for the Valentine's Day, Feb. 14 season. It will enter the most furiously competitive film season of the year, which will see the debuts of several other highly-anticipated blockbusters, including Jackie Chan's historical war epic "Dragon Blade" co-starring Academy Award-winner Adrien Brody, "The Man From Macau 2" by Wong Jing and 3D fantasy movie "Zhongkui: Snow Girl and the Dark Crystal" by Peter Pau and Zhao Tianyu.
It will also debut in France on Feb. 25. Alibaba Pictures acquired rights to distribute "Wolf Totem" in other territories outside of the United States while the French film company Wild Bunch acquired the European sales rights in February 2013.
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