Photos: Jean-Jacques Annaud on the set of his family adventure "Two… (David Koskas / Universal…)
SHANGHAI — Fifteen years ago, Jean-Jacques Annaud was demonized by the Chinese Communist Party for his film “Seven Years in Tibet” — the cadres were unhappy with his cinematic portrayal of the People’s Liberation Army’s invasion of the region in 1949 and his casting of the sister of the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama.
A decade and a half on, the 68-year-old French director is being welcomed here with open arms.
On Saturday, Annaud will arrive in China to chair the jury of the 15th Shanghai International Film Festival, which kicks off this weekend with 17 films from around the world in competition. And he’s preparing to make a $30-million Mandarin-language drama with the state-run China Film Group.
The film is based on “Wolf Totem,” the biggest-selling contemporary novel of all time in China. “Wolf Totem” follows a Chinese student from Beijing who is sent to Inner Mongolia in 1967 for reeducation at the height of the Cultural Revolution. By living with the nomads and among the wolves on the steppe, the protagonist builds a deep respect for freedom and nature, themes Annaud has explored before in his films “The Bear” and “Two Brothers.”
The nearly 600-page semi-autobiographical novel was written by Jiang Rong, the pen name of Beijing political scientist Lu Jiamin, who was detained without trial for more than a year following his participation in the 1989 Tiananmen Square uprising. His first book, it shot up China’s bestseller list in 2004 and was widely translated after celebrities such as former NBA star Yao Ming praised the messages between its covers. There are many, including praise for the complementary individualism and teamwork of nomadic life, the destructiveness of breakneck modernization and the importance of environmental conservation.
The fact that censors allowed the book to be published in China surprised many, given that the protagonist expresses contempt for the group-think that China’s majority Han ethnicity forces on ethnic minorities and disdains the Confucian principles that the Communist Party has recently revived in its political rhetoric even in the 21st century. Which messages Annaud and his partners will highlight on screen remains to be seen.
Annaud spoke by phone from his country home in France about his second chapter with China.
What are your expectations for chairing your first Chinese festival jury?
I try my best to see that winners reflect the democratic taste of my jury. I am not a dictator. I am here to chair, I’m not here to decide alone. I’ve been to most of the festivals in the West. I will come to Shanghai with the most open mind and open heart. I am honored to chair this festival. One of the things that excites me is to get closer to members of the industry. It’s a good occasion for me to meet again the producers, directors, actors. It’s important for my next project and for my interest in cinema in general to be closer to Chinese cinema.
Did you first read “Wolf Totem” in French or English?
I read it in French. I was approached by the writer, Jiang Rong, who became a wonderful friend. I spent three weeks with him in Inner Mongolia. He knew my work, and some of his friends at the production company also knew my work. They came to me, and I found it was right up my alley. It has been my conviction to find true stories about the environment. I was very excited to see that one of the bestselling books in China was precisely about something that everyone in the West is unaware of — that China has a deep movement that understands the need for the conservation and protection of nature and promotion of environmental issues.
Did you and Jiang Rong ever talk about his anti-Confucian themes?
Of course. What I have done so far is write the screenplay with the same freedom I would for a Western production. Probably I’m naive, or possibly not. I came to China with the first draft of the script a few weeks ago, sharing my heart’s desires to emphasize the book’s different themes. I didn’t get any negative comments. I’ve heard so many things, but I am among those people who must see for himself. I went with my instincts and my sincerity, and for the moment I don’t have any limitations. In the cinema today, even in Los Angeles, this is very rare these days. I’ve always been a final-cut director, a big privilege.
You started this film with the Beijing Forbidden City Film Co., right?