OK, let’s find out right now if there’s enough going on in The Cave of the Yellow Dog to sustain a full-length movie review. The jury’s still out on whether there’s enough in it to sustain a full-length movie. But of course that’s the beauty of it, too. Given its Buddhist leanings, condemning this film for emptiness really seems like missing the point.
Filmmaker Byambasuren Davaa, co-director of 2003’s Oscar-nominated The Story of the Weeping Camel, returns to her native Mongolia for another docudrama, of assuredly minimal proportions, about the bonds between simple agrarian people and animals. Again she renders an only mildly manipulated narrative of real life. But whereas in Weeping Camel Davaa lucked into a singular dramatic development—a camel rejecting its newborn colt, and then, thanks to a live performance of soothing ancient music, reconsidering—Yellow Dog’s storyline is more commonplace, its bones even barer.
It goes like this: Against her father’s wishes, an adorable little girl takes in an adorable little dog. These matters are further complicated by not being further complicated.
The Batchuluun family, as played by the Batchuluun family, lives with its herds in the country’s remote, pastoral grasslands. They don’t have much in the way of high technology, save for a sewing machine, a motorcycle, and a yapping battery-powered plush toy that briefly enthralls their three young kids, normally accustomed to making toys from petrified patties of dung.
Still, modernization looms. More and more of their fellow nomads are departing for rooted lives in the city, leaving naught but stray dogs, which tend to mix with the wolves that prey on the Batchuluuns’ sheep. Hence father’s concern when rosy-cheeked Nansal comes home one day with a new companion, “Spot.”
To earn his keep, oblige kid-and-dog movie convention and demonstrate Nansal’s good judgment of character, the dog eventually shoos some menacing vultures away from her toddler brother. But his principal interest lies with the business of being cute. You’ll notice, by the way, that Spot is not a yellow dog. The movie has an explanation for this. Be patient.
Now, whether The Cave of the Yellow Dog is deliberately encoded with feminism—its precocious heroine, already an accomplished equestrian and sheep wrangler at age six, defies her patriarchal traditionalist father for the sake of an irrational but worthy love—or is merely an animal-friendly fable about the effects of social progress on a traditional way of life, Davaa doesn’t overtly declare. But she lays it out with stoic confidence. Dwelling on the seasonal procedures of nomadic life, she’s a dutiful chronicler of quotidian routine: the gathering of the dung, the skinning of a dead sheep, the dismantling of the yurt. Remember, this is more documentary than dramatization.
And for what it is, you can bet the film will be overpraised. Again, patience is advised. Just try to understand what it’s like for some movie critics today. They expend so much energy advocating obscure, artisanal treasures of world-cinema, only to have their own kids gang up on them with media-programmed demands for artless, overproduced Hollywood schlock. These sensitive souls hunger desperately for anything of apparently greater nutritional value than the junk food of commercial family fare. They gorge on less filling and less immediately gratifying material with abandon, convincing themselves that blandness is an acquired taste.
In other words, yes, watching The Cave of the Yellow Dog does sometimes feel like eating your vegetables. But if that sounds entirely insufferable, you may need to work on transcending your desire to skip right to dessert.
Even if the movie takes its time because it’s stalling for something to say, it does seems strangely comfortable with that uncertainty; the stalling is portentous. Even in its glacial pace, it maintains immediacy. Even its distancing vistas manage a palpable intimacy. Most signally, it captures the unselfconscious, aimless vitality of young children, whose “colorful stories” their parents perhaps rightly figure for recollections of previous lives. Look, just eat the vegetables.
Many filmmakers spend whole careers trying to seem at once slight and significant. Davaa has managed it in only two films.