And so the Tibetan new-wave cometh. Though merely a tiny ripple for now (consisting of about two filmmakers), the homelanders are showing a different side of their environment, one overlooked by features such as “Seven Years in Tibet” or the blockbusters currently burning the region’s box office. Pema Tseden’s “Old Dog” doesn’t include any of the flourishing beauty that the aforementioned Brad Pitt vehicle does, instead opting to showcase a dismal, despairing area where the cities look like post-apocalyptic wastelands and the countrysides don’t seem to contain a speck of life. While his outlook on things is unrelentingly critical, he’s not being negative for the sake of it — there’s some true passion behind this work, and Tseden is a director with plenty to say on all topics, ranging from the younger generation’s lack of connection to their heritage to the troubling relationship between Tibet and China. All is told in a subtle way, with a minimal plot and quiet, patient long takes — which is also another way of saying that his modus operandi isn’t likely to please everyone, but for those that admire the work of filmmakers like Jia Zhangke, another remarkable talent has emerged.
Things begin with a young man touring the city on his motorcycle, dog in tow. This is Gonpo, and he hopes to get some scratch by selling his old family canine — with all the recent pooch snatching, he figures he could beat the thieves to the punch and at least make some money out of it. Unfortunately, the Chinese buyer he meets doesn’t offer the right price, so the unkempt looking man recruits his cousin (also a police officer) to help negotiate a better price. He manages to seal the deal, returning to his rural home without the mastiff mutt but with a hefty chunk of change instead.
But no amount of money would please Akhu, Gonpo’s elderly father, who berates him for selling the dog. Add it to the list of issues he has with his kin: Gonpo is lazy, unmotivated, and has been married for years but is still without the pitter-patter of little feet. Akhu returns to the town and, after enlisting the same badge-wielding relative (what a helpful guy), he manages to retrieve the hound. Unfortunately this is just the start of their problems with the mastiff, and to add icing to the cake, the married couple soon discover why they’ve been having so much trouble conceiving.
Though the story is generally banal and plot developments are few and far between, what is there is quite rich from both an emotional standpoint and an allegorical one. Much of the former admittedly has to do with the sole fact that the narrative is based around man’s best friend — it’d be difficult not to connect with this lovable pet, especially considering he’s shipped back and forth like some material possession — but Tseden knows the difference between legitimate warmth and manipulative tear-jerking. Instead of pressing in for dramatic impact, he tends to stay static, and from a distance — the results cause one to feel as if they’re living there, in the moment. Though the characters are reticent, we can feel their presence, their bonds, their life.
Constructing a narrative where character arcs represent anything metaphorical is always a danger: lay it on too thick and it can backfire, feeling downright silly (“Afterschool,” for instance, is a fine film — that is until the deceased twins that set the story in motion grow to represent the Twin Towers in the September 11th attack). “Old Dog” takes things down a subtler route, with the only hazard being that proceedings might be too understated for those not fluent in the goings-on in the Tibetan region — for example, the loss of traditional values is embedded heavily into the journey of the eponymous doggy and Gonpo. That said, the film isn’t any less absorbing because of this, and the power of the image is not just universal but also the proper sweet spot between the aforementioned poles– one look at the muddy decrepit urban area that the characters frequent is all it takes to see where Pseden is coming from.
These visual compositions are certainly planned and plotted in an assured manner, but they still retain some life thanks to some intuitive looseness. Towards the end of the film, a scene involving some strangers offering to buy Akhu’s mastiff is framed incredibly wide, with a herd of sheep lingering in the distant background and the humans conversing closer to the camera, a fence separating the interested party and the elderly owner. After Akhu dismisses the offer and returns to his stock, a lone sheep is isolated on the opposite side of the fence, struggling to jump over and return to the pack. Despite the scene being over, we linger for quite awhile on this labor, with the abandoned one moving up the hill, closer to the lens. It all results in a terrifically moving, magical moment, something akin to last year’s majestic “La Quattro Volte.”
The slow pace eventually gives way to a truly unsettling climax, one which will likely leave a deep imprint and be the cause of much discussion (at this writer’s screening, it took up about half the Q&A). But this finale’s lasting power, especially after the initial shock has worn off, is a testament to how fantastic the preceding sequences were. “Old Dog” is a true gem and the mark of an especially skilled director — mark our words, Pema Tseden is a name you’ll be seeing in contention for the Palme d’Or in the not-too-distant future. [A]