BEIJING (AP) — French director Jean-Jacques Annaud, who fell out of favor in China after portraying Chinese troops invading Tibet, said he had "incredible freedom" to turn best-selling novel "Wolf Totem" into a movie at the invitation of Chinese producers.
Annaud said he did not yield to censors' requests to alter scenes but made the film as he wanted to in China, where movies need approval from government regulators.
"I think being your own censor is very bad, so I did the screenplay very freely," he told The Associated Press on Tuesday.
Set in the 1960s during the Cultural Revolution, "Wolf Totem" tells the semi-autobiographical story of a student sent from the city to the Inner Mongolian steppes for re-education. He lives with the nomads, develops a respect for freedom and nature and becomes fascinated with the wolves. But then a government official orders all the wolves in the area to be killed.
Many were surprised the book "Wolf Totem" was approved by the censors because it was seen by some as a critique of Communist rule. The author, whose pen name was Jiang Rong, was eventually revealed to be Lu Jiamin, a veteran activist who narrowly escaped a death sentence during the Cultural Revolution and later served prison time for taking part in the 1989 pro-democracy protests in Tiananmen Square, which were brutally stopped by the military.
The 2004 novel also touches on the clash over resources between Mongolian nomads and the Han Chinese. Since it was published, ethnic Mongolian herders have protested mines operating on grazing land that they complain are damaging the environment and killing livestock.
Both the director and main actor, Feng Shaofeng, said the China-France co-production centered on the relationship between humans and nature, and taking care of the environment. "The film is not just a film about China. It's for the whole world, and its theme is an issue everyone cares about," said Feng.
Annaud said that after submitting his screenplay he received a letter from censors saying that three scenes "may be problematic," including one scene involving a traditional Mongol custom that they said may be upsetting for Mongols. The director said he wrote back disputing this, and shot and edited the scene how he had originally intended. Chinese audiences will see exactly the same version as that released internationally, he added.
The lack of censorship may be partly explained by the fact that diplomats from Beijing and Paris are touting the film as a model of Sino-French cultural exchange. The state-backed China Film Group, one of the producers, also has hopes the film will be an Oscar contender next year.
Annaud, who has made films with animals in the past, such as "Two Brothers" and "The Bear," was visited at his Paris office by a delegation of Chinese producers who told him they would be honored to see him direct "Wolf Totem," partly so the Chinese film industry could learn from him.
"They said to me in a very frank open way we love the movies you've been doing, we don't know how you do them, and we would like to invite you in our country to do this movie because we don't know how to do what you do," he said.
He said they were curious about his methods, which involved shooting entirely on location in Inner Mongolia, China's autonomous northern region that borders Mongolia and is characterized by grasslands, and rejecting their initial idea of filming with dogs or computer generated animals, rather than real wolves.
Annaud has visited China about 10 times each year since 2009, when he took on the project. Part of the reason it took so long was that they reared Mongol wolves that could interact with the actors and crew, which took three years.
The fact that Annaud was sought to direct the film of the book beloved by many in China is a turnaround from a permanent ban he reportedly received for his 1997 film "Seven Years in Tibet," along with lead actor Brad Pitt. China was upset by his portrayal of harsh Chinese rule in Tibet in the story of an Austrian explorer's relationship with a young Dalai Lama.
Annaud said Tuesday that the ban "was mostly a rumor in my case."
"I heard that I was not welcome and I mentioned that to the people who came to see me, and they said, 'China has changed, and we are pragmatic and we need you,' and that was it," said the director. "Since that day no one ever mentioned anything."
The film will be released in China on Feb. 19, during the popular cinema-going period of Chinese New Year, and in France on Feb. 25.