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ReelTalk Movie Reviews
Love Me, Love My Dog
by Donald Levit

Revive, reprise, remake, rehash, pre- or sequel, is the order of today on the Silver Screen and Great White Way. German-based director/screenwriter Byambasuren Davaa’s international prize-winning The Cave of the Yellow Dog/Die Höhle des gelben Hundes is a small variation on her co-done The Story of the Weeping Camel, Mongolia’s first-ever Academy Award nominee (controversially as a documentary). Happily, both films work, this second one more scripted than the first, and Lassie series-like but with more empathy for family than for a “lazybones” canine who spends much of the ninety minutes asleep.

A “mix of documentary and drama,” the film is non-fiction secondarily, for the windy steppe tablelands crossed by streams, ringed by hills, are scrub and harsh instead of tourist-poster attractive, nor does environment have precedence over the human. Documentary-like, yes, in snips of Mother (Buyandulam Daramdadi Batchuluum) straining milk or flattening curd cheese beneath cart wheels, Father (Urjindorj Batchuluum) skinning a sheep, and the fascinating dismantling of a pastoral nomad poles-and-skin yurt dwelling and wind-powered generator; in its unobtrusive backdrop of rural depopulation and the resultant upsurge in depredations by wolf- and dog-packs; and in the ironically humorous municipal elections invoked in a newspaper wrapping and a motorized reminder in the middle of nowhere “to vote . . . make the right decision.”

The nation is Tibetan Buddhist, and there are passing playful references to reincarnation life cycles. Despite this, a Dalai Lama photo, Davaa’s claim to “deal with great spirituality and Buddhist belief,” and Father’s prefatory “everyone dies, but no one is dead,” such outside “reality” is even less effectively suggested in the solitary crone (Teserenpuntsag Ish) who shelters girl heroine Nansaa (Nansal Batchuluum) from the storm, an artsy excuse to relate the non-intrinsic folksy wisdom of the courting couple and cave of the yellow dog fable.

What makes the attractive film go are the five non-professional components of the real nomad family in remote northwest Altai bordering Russia, home of the director’s mother and the grandmother who told her that tale of the title dog. Aside from seconds with two hunters, a school van and the incongruous election vehicle, plus minutes of the old lady, this land is bare of all save scavengers, ruminants, a couple horses, a motorcycle more carted around than ridden--and the stoical family. Weeping Camel had its brief visual contrasts in the local town, and its neighbors and shaman, but Yellow Dog never leaves the family. Oldest child Nansaa returns from a term away at school, having seen the wonders of indoor toilets and multi-storey buildings, and, thanking the spirits for allowing their summer home, the parents, Nansaa, and younger sister and baby brother (Nansalmaa and Batbayer Batchuluum) pack up absolutely everything and move to town for work and her return to education.

Between opening homecoming and closing departure, the three children have aged only months. Her siblings are still too little to internalize whatever life lessons are there to learn, and even six-year-old Nansaa cannot verbalize her growth. Sent for the first time to gather yak dung for fuel, she comically misses the basket with most of the chips and comes back with a docile snowy-and-brown mongrel dog from a shallow cave. Zochor (“Spot”) does not do much of anything except worry undemonstrative Father, who suspects that it may be part wolf and attract other predators of sheep and goats, brings from Badam a pink windup dog to wean the children from the real one, and instructs the elder daughter that her pet has to go.

Not so obvious as to be camera-eyed over Nansaa’s shoulder, and occasionally depicting Mother’s daily tasks, the story centers on the Campbell’s soup apple-cheeked girl who pirouettes before the lens in endearing ways, semi-hiding her animal friend but never answering back to her parents, and realistically wiping her nose and slinging the mucus from finger into a stream.

With becoming restraint, the tale does not belabor a sigh for the humble good lost to (relative) modernization in one of earth’s least populous areas. Nor do the family beat their breasts as they journey into a future with the measured long-take dignity of centuries of forebears. To spare traditional string or vocal music by Börte Group, the characters and the film’s pace is unhurried, a turnoff for many kids from ten to thirty today but a relaxer refreshment for youngsters and their older-kid parents.

Plot dénouement is not a surprise, coming as it does out of scores of animal films, although there has been a window for a sinister turn. The oversight which gives rise to it is not illogical, and there is a suspenseful moment when, seeming not to have understood, Father turns away. But this time a picture of sweetest life near the bone will not be tragic or sad, joys negligible by others’ standards will bring smiles and, unconsciously wiser, the family unit will persevere. 

(Released by Tartan Films; not rated by MPAA.)

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