Forget Uggie or Hachiko. My favorite canine companion in recent cinema is the shaggy, steadfast nomad mastiff of Tibetan writer-director Pema Tseden’s contemplative and ultimately wrenching “Old Dog” (2011), available today on DVD from Icarus Films Home Video/dGenerate Films Home Video Collection.
With a matted-down coat of thick black fur, the nameless old dog trots alongside a herdsman and his dissolute son through contemporary Tibet’s muddy, rutted roads, becoming in the process an emblem of fluctuating values — familial, cultural, financial. The breed, newly popular among China’s monied classes, now demands exorbitant prices, and local criminals have taken to stealing the dogs in the dead of night for sale on the black market. “The mastiff is the nomad’s door guard,” the elderly man (Lochey) wonders. “What is it these city people are so afraid of?”
Though set on the frontier of the world economy, this nightmarish vision of the mainland’s rapid urbanization shadows “Old Dog” throughout, ever the ghost on its margins. The family’s small television blares out an advertisement for cheap gold, its dispatch from modernity lost in translation. “Who is more genuine than me?” one of the presenters screeches. “Who is more affordable than me?”
For Tseden, the promise of easy riches is as distant as a Shanghai skyscraper: life in his Tibet is no idyll under the stainless white caps of the Himalayas, much less a triumphal tale of the Chinese economic miracle. The nearby town where the herdman’s son, against his father’s wishes, attempts to sell the old dog before the thieves can get him is a wan, dreary locale, its main thoroughfare beset by the exhaust of massive trucks and lined with identically nondescript flat-roofed buildings. Against long, dialogue-free stretches punctuated only by the gentle braying of goats, Tseden sets a startling cacophony of car engines, stray mutts, and construction sites. The benefits supposed to accrue from China’s neocolonial control of Tibet remain but a figment of the imagination, leaving as its waste product an ugly white noise.
As a naturalistic portrait of a region that receives only fitful attention in the West, “Old Dog” — Tibet from the ground up and the inside out — succeeded in remaking my own mental picture of the place. Nor is the film built solely from its dark political portents. Tseden, with cinematographer Sonthar Gyal, discovers an abundance of arresting images, all the more so for being handcrafted and unglamorous: a pair playing billiards outside the police precinct, under the turgid gray sky; two small children dragging a baby goat by its horns; the single headlamp of a motorbike weaving through the empty night, the only light for miles around.
Yet “Old Dog” emerges most forcefully as an allegory of hidden costs and deranged values. At the film’s end, the herdsman and his four-legged sidekick arrive at a reckoning, a final stop along the far-reaching conduits of Chinese repression and economic exploitation. Like its title character, “Old Dog” is rough around the edges, rarely playing for sentiment but deeply loyal nonetheless — a reminder that the prices we pay cannot always be calculated in dollars or yuan, and that what we can or cannot afford may have little to do with money.
“Old Dog” ($24.98) is available today on DVD from Icarus Films Home Video/dGenerate Films Home Video Collection. No date has been set, but a streaming release on iTunes and Amazon Video is planned for autumn.