The celebrated French auteur, Jean-Jacques Annaud -- known for such great works as Quest of Fire, The Name of the Rose, The Lover and Seven Years in Tibet -- is no longer persona non-grata in China.
Winner of several awards, including four Ceasers (France's equivalent of Oscars), Annaud had in his 1977 Seven Years in Tibet lambasted the Chinese Government for its atrocities on the plateau. The film was based on an emotionally moving true story in which Hollywood actor, Brad Pitt, plays an Austrian mountaineer. He becomes friendly with the teenage Dalai Lama before the 1950s when China invaded Tibet forcing the spiritual head to flee to India.
Seven Years in Tibet ends with disturbing title cards. "One million Tibetans have died as a result of the Chinese occupation of Tibet. Six thousand monasteries were destroyed".
The movie angered Beijing so much that it banned Annaud, Pitt and his co-star, David Thewlis from visiting China.
Although China continues to be extremely touchy about Tibet -- even calling the Dalai Lama a separatist -- Beijing appears to have done a volte-face. The restriction on Annaud has been lifted, and he was allowed to make a movie right in China. Budgeted at $40 million, the French director's work is in 3D and has been adapted from a Chinese novel. The film, Wolf Totem, has just opened in China, and it will now travel to France and the US, the distribution rights having been taken over by Sony.
Annaud's latest movie is set during China's Cultural Revolution of the 1960s (a subject that Beijing is still sensitive about), and traces the life of a young intellectual and his love of wolves. He encounters these animals when he is deported to Mongolia to teach Mandarin. The land may have been scenic, but was considered by Chinese as back and beyond as well as a punishment post.
Wolf Totem (which is also the title of the book) is a semi-autobiographical novel written by Jiang Rong -- an activist who was sent to prison after the Tiananmen Square massacre. Surprisingly, Beijing allowed this novel to be published in 2004, and it became a runaway hit.
Admittedly, Wolf Totem is a far milder film than Seven Years in Tibet. The cadres of the Communist Party in Annaud's new outing are not really arrogant, but appear foolish. They are not benevolent either.
In a way, the movie also touched the nostalgic side of Annaud. In the 1960s ,when Annaud went to Cameroon as a soldier, he saw the brutality of French agriculturists, who tried to impose the wrong kind of farming techniques on the small nation, then a helpless colony.