Saturday, March 17, 2007

Film Review #90: The Cave of the Yellow Dog
Director: Byambasuren Davaa
Cast: The Batchuluun family

Somewhere on the northwestern Mongolian steppes, the Batchuluun family’s two youngest kids have been left alone all day. Outside their warm, well-lit yurt with its patterned rugs and cabinets, a rain storm has gathered as night falls. Their father, Urindorj, has made the several days’ journey to town by motorcycle to sell the hides of two sheep killed by the region’s growing number of marauding wolves. Their mother, Batbayar, has taken the second of the family’s two horses out to look for Nansal, who did not return earlier with the sheep. Nansal, about six or seven and home from boarding school, was sent to herd in her father’s absence, perched on his horse and accompanied by Zochor, the stray puppy named for his spots that she stubbornly refuses to part with. The little ones left alone are her younger sister and brother. “Watch your brother,” says their mother as she rides off.

That’s what the little girl does. She keeps him inside – away from the prowling wolves we imagine are close-by – dancing with him, then correcting him gently when the restless toddler (his restlessness gets him in real danger later) spies the family’s painted ceramic statue of Buddha and starts biting its head. “No,” says his older sister, all of four, taking the statue from him. “You can’t play with God.”

In an interview on the DVD, Mongolian director Byambasuren Davaa cites this moment as one of those absurdly lucky accidents of documentary filmmaking that you couldn’t plan or even get such young nonprofessionals to perform anyway. On that day, the real Nansal had decided she “didn’t want to play” with the film crew anymore, so they were shooting footage of the other kids to pass the time.

The Cave of the Yellow Dog is Davaa’s second feature, a dramatized documentary built from following a real Mongolian family over two months. It comes to DVD release three months after its US theatrical release in New York, after reaching fifteen other countries. Davaa’s first film, The Story of the Weeping Camel, filmed in Mongolia’s Gobi Desert, concerns another nomadic family, who must enlist a musician to persuade a camel to accept her new offspring. Weeping Camel was Oscar-nominated, and I remember a friend, familiar with that part of the world, calling me long distance and exclaiming, “You have to see this movie!”

After working on Mongolian National Television since 1989, Davaa studied at the film academy in Mongolia’s capital, Ulaanbaatar, in the late 90s. Not content, she moved to Germany in 2000 to study film at Munich. The Cave of the Yellow Dog is her graduation project, shot with a largely German crew, as was Weeping Camel.

Davaa’s method at first seems much like the pioneering documentary work of Robert Flaherty. His 1922 Nanook of the North, the first silent documentary, followed an Inuit family hunting walrus on Canada’s Hudson Bay. Man of Aran (1934) followed an Irish fishing family, also battling the elements to avoid starvation. (Both films are avaialble on DVD.) Flaherty’s films were borne of long shoots and much editing, but he also sometimes endangered his subjects and sometimes asked them to stage picturesque but largely abandoned practices. A member of the culture she records, Davaa is both more respectful of her subjects and more attentive to accuracy about a way of life she seeks to capture.

Because a major theme is reincarnation against a modernizing world, Yellow Dog begins with the puppy’s death and works backward to explain how Zochor won his honored place in this family. Nansal is unexpectedly assertive after boarding school, keeping the puppy her father fears will attract wolves, and it's true that her stubbornness and fondness for the puppy endangers herself and her family. She goes on a journey and is taken in by her grandmother to dry out, drink hot tea, and hear the same fable that Davaa’s grandmother told her. When the family breaks camp and the little brother is left behind, Zochor saves his life. Consistant with this gentle film, this rescue, while tense and suspenseful, is also largely implied.

The Cave of the Yellow Dog has an optional dubbed soundtrack in English so that kids can watch too without having to deal with the subtitles. You’ll want to watch this one with them.

This review appeared in the 3/15/07 issue of the Syracuse City Eagle weekly, where "Make it Snappy” is a weekly column reviewing DVDs of films that never opened locally and older films of enduring worth.