28 February 2007

The Cave of the Yellow Dog

Written & Directed by: Byambasuren Davaa
Grade: B+

Sort of like The Searchers without any Indians, The Cave of the Yellow Dog feels like a John Ford Western, especially with its breathtaking backdrops, sucked dry of all dramatic conflict. Having much in common with neorealism, the fiction film feels largely documentary, spending most of its time observing the ordinary life of a real family of non-professional actors on location in Mongloia. Learn how to make cheese, skin a sheep, and how children of little resources can transform animal dung into toys.

Nansal, the oldest of three children, is the focus of the film and has a remarkably natural screen presence, as though completely oblivious that there's a man with a camera staring at her. Davaa, for his part employs a very simple—that's a compliment—filmmaking style that's patient in its long, steady glances. It's the perfect fit for an exceedingly simple story about a simple, though by no means easy, way of life; this is a movie not about things happening but about people in a particular place and time. Oh, and a dog.

While out one day grazing sheep, Nansal encounters a stray dog peeping out from a cave. They're immediately best friends—maybe they know each other from a past life? Dad says they can't keep him, an order Nansal defers as long as she can until the nomadic family must move on and leave the dog behind. Since my dog just died perhaps I ought to have recused myself from reviewing the film; how could I ever discuss a film about dogs again when I can't watch one without blubbering? But Davaa, despite how sweet his kids and dog are, never lets his film descend into the cutesy or the maudlin. Still, damned if I didn't tear up.

Dad, from a trip to town (on a motorcycle no less), brings mom back a new plastic ladle to replace her old metal one, but it melts in a pot soon thereafter. Modernity encroaches on Mongolia, but some things just can't be replaced; when Dad buys his children a small, pink, battery-operated toy dog, it's no substitute for the one he's taken away. Particularly in the masterful, long final shot—see it for yourself—the story of the dog is elevated to an allegory for Modern Mongolia losing a bit of its rural heritage to urbanization; I imagine this speaks more to native Mongolians than to an ignoramus like me, although you'd have to be the creep in L'Âge d'Or who kicks that little white dog not to fall for this movie on its simplest terms. How could you not be a sucker for a simple story of the love between a girl and her dog?

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