Possessed of the most minimal of storytelling arcs, “The Cave of the Yellow Dog” can’t be summed up easily–to do so is to miss the core of its uncommon loveliness. Though ostensibly the film hinges on a young girl, Nansaa (Nansal Batchuluun), and the conflict that arises when she finds a stray dog in a cave and wants to keep it against her father’s wishes, as in her previous (co-directing) effort, “The Story of the Weeping Camel“–with which it shares many similarities–Byambasuren Davaa‘s film takes the simplest of conceits and from it spins a beautiful appreciation of a specific culture: that of Mongolian nomads.
There is an unforced warmth to this description–sensitive and teeming with life–which defies categorization. Animated by moments of seemingly spontaneous stillness rather than narrative-pushing action, its sui generis approach confuses the fictitious and the real (compounded by the fact that the filmmaker fashions her story around an actual family of non-actors, endearingly disclosed by the end credits). So we observe numerous instances of “nothing happening”: Nansaa and the baby playfully slapping one another, the mother serenading her youngest, a purposeful roaming of the plains. How much is staged and how much is organically caught on camera? That question mark infuses “Yellow Dog” with fascination as Davaa conveys the texture of the family’s routines and rituals, an existence mostly stripped down to basic concerns: food, shelter, clothing.
Her camera captures how these nomadic lives become inextricably linked to the land in a way few of us in the industrialized world can imagine. Only a collapsible structure stands between the Batchuluuns and the natural elements, and the giving of gratitude to the earth remains a matter of course. For once, the foregrounding of gorgeously dramatic surroundings seems essential rather than epic-lobbying backdrop. And this interweaving of quotidian exercises of the everyday with grandiose expanses feeds the film’s intriguing tension: though it’s at once distant, almost artless in its documentary-style directness, it retains an intimacy in its loving attention to detail.
Although not as evident as perhaps Davaa projects (as per the press notes), nostalgia in the face of a changing culture–hinted at by references to the city, boarding school for Nansaa, and houses where people “pee inside”–permeates the film, and confirms the poetic anthropological rendering to be as much an act of preservation as creativity. Some might call it a less successful retread of “Weeping Camel”–it doesn’t quite attain the unbelabored perfection of that film–but even a contrived “Lassie”-like conclusion can’t diffuse the tenderness that emanates from “The Cave of the Yellow Dog” and the sense of sublimity it leaves in its wake.
ABOUT THE WRITER: Kristi Mitsuda is a Reverse Shot staff writer and works at New York’s Film Forum.
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