(director/writer: Jean-Jacques Annaud; screenwriters: Alain Godard, Lu Wei, John Collee, based on the novel by Jiang Rong; cinematographer: Jean-Marie Dreujou; editor: Reynald Bertrand; music: James Horner; cast: William Feng Shaofeng (Chen Zhen), Shawn Dou (Yang Ke), Ankhnyam Ragchaa (Gasma), Basen Zhabu (Bilig), Yin Zhusheng (Bao Shunghi), Baoyingexige (Batu), Tumenbayar (Shartseren), Xilindule (Petit Bayar), Bao Hailong (Lamjav); Runtime: 121; MPAA Rating: PG-13; producers: Jean-Jacques Annaud, Xavier Castano, La Peikang, Bill Kong; Sony; 2015-China/France-in Mandarin & Mongolian, with English subtitles)

Warns us that an old-fashioned way of life is passing to an encroaching civilization.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

French director and co-writer Jean-Jacques Annaud (“Day of the Falcon”/”Two Brothers”) adapts the Chinese novel by Jiang Rong (whose real name is Professor Lu Jiamin) about the Cultural Revolution as played out in Inner Mongolia in 1967. The controversial 2008 novel was a critique of Chinese modernization and environmental policies. It took three years to film.

During the second year of the Cultural Revolution the intellectual Beijing students Chen Zhen (Feng Shaofeng) and Yang Ke (Shawn Dou) are sent to teach the nomad herdsmen children of Inner Mongolia how to read and write in Mandarin. But the city boys learn more about life from the locals and their wise-man gray-bearded leader, Bilig (Basen Zhabu), than the community learns from them.

Meanwhile the communist bosses from the city are viewed by the locals as meddlers, who do not understand the land yet give misguided orders to the locals on how to manage their land. Wolves are the fierce enemies of the nomads who dwell in the steppes. These menacing animals fascinate Chen, who secretly adopts a cub in order to study its ways. Chen’s schoolboy adventures become central to the film. The film’s problem is that the script by Annaud, Alain Godard, Lu Wei and John Collee is muddled, dull and didactic.

Though an earnest production, with great production values, it’s still lifeless in its covering of old news about the failed Cultural Revolution. What bothered me was that the nomads are held too high on a pedestal and the subplot romantic tale of the leader’s daughter-in-law, Gasma (Ankhnyam Ragchaa) never was convincing. Also, the political undertones I expect mean more to the Chinese than to foreigners. It only keeps our attention with brilliant nature shots, as with the wolf attacks on the gazelles and on the Chinese prize horses. Ultimately, it warns us that an old-fashioned way of life is passing to an encroaching civilization, and we are warned that not be all that good.

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