Byambasuren Davaa, the German filmmaker responsible (along with co-scenarist and co-director Luigi Falorni) for one of the most annoying ethnographic films of all time, Die Geschichte vom weinenden Kamel (The Story of the Weeping Camel, 2003), is at it again with Die Höhle des gelben Hundes (The Cave of the Yellow Dog). She returned to her birth country, Mongolia, to mine more beautiful Nature and simple Mongolian humanity and this time breaks about even. Her Cave is pretty awful, but at least Davaa gives it a slambang gripping finish. I confess: after ninety minutes that seemed closer to six hours, at the last I was in tears. This time, Davaa got what she wanted out of me.
It is the story of Nansal, a six-year-old child who brings home a spotted white dog, which she calls Zochor, that may have been abandoned by its owners, southern Mongolian nomads like her own family, when they moved on. Nansal finds the gentle creature in a cave, and her father orders her to return it lest, attracting wolves with which it may have joined, it proves responsible for the decimation of their herd of sheep. Nansal instead keeps the dog, doing her best to hide its proximity from her father, who might seem cruel except that a couple of the sheep are killed by wolves. Nansal’s father skins the carcasses, selling the skins in town. This, in conjunction with other events, implies that the family’s adaptability and resourcefulness—converting a calamity into productive use—helps keep them and other old-way families alive. There is little margin for waste in their lives.
I object to the death of the sheep on two grounds. It conveniently exonerates the father of the charge of obtuseness; it exemplifies the contrivance with which Davaa’s script is inundated. As in her film about the camel, a new-age mother bereft of the traditional maternal instinct, Davaa comes equipped with a heavy Teutonic hand. Apparently when she studied film there, and afterwards in her new life there, Germany seeped into her soul. Indeed, much of the film’s imagery is grandiose.
The dog dies. Now, before you throw epithets at me for disclosing this detail of plot, hear me out: (1) Doesn’t the dog always die in these films? (2) In this case, Zochor is being buried by the father, with Nansal looking on, in the film’s opening scene. There is, then, no suspense about this—Davaa’s successful attempt to shortcircuit the sentimentality that usually attaches itself to such an outcome. After the scene, there is a long-held dimming and blackout to let us know that what follows is a flashback, not a continuation. Davaa has thus found an effective visual method for replacing the creaking page of titles, “Five months earlier . . . .” The dog’s hardiness must be masking its frailty, and this craftily reflects on the family’s own imperiled existence. All well and good.
While I endorse the fine way that this opening scene plays out throughout the film as a low-key mortal chord, the scene itself is not to my liking. This is one of many opportunities that a parent or a grandparent takes to instruct Nansal in tenets of Buddhist philosophy. In the abstract, there is merit to showing how fully integrated a people’s religious faith and its traditions are in their lives; and certainly Davaa shows the parents—who are quite young, incidentally—functioning as parents in other, differently loving ways besides. But so many things being turned into object lessons and opportunities to instruct comes to seem intrusive and harsh—on Davaa’s part, that is. It is as if the family were as much didactic as nomadic.
The instruction here hinges on the position into which the father sets the dog’s body, which Nansal asks about, and which relates to the tenet of reincarnation. (Later, Granny picks up the theme in a labored tale that, for us, explains the film’s title. Obnoxiously, Granny not only tells Nansal the story but immediately interprets it for her—an instance where oral becomes anal.) I object to this moment of teaching far less than I do to something that occurs, in another vein of parental response, soon after the screen blackout. Nansal has returned home from school (for the summer, I presume), and she proudly shows her father her schoolwork that has been awarded stars for excellence. What child wouldn’t do such a thing? As far as Nansal’s behavior goes, the moment is delightful. But the scene grates as her father notes a starred assignment in addition to the one that his daughter has showed him. What manipulative contrivance! Davaa’s message is this: Nansal is a “good child.” It is against this that we are supposed to weigh her subsequent disobedience of her father’s order to return Zochor to the cave where she found the dog. That much Davaa intended, to little benefit. But far creepier is the implication that she did not anticipate but which arises from this assinine scene nevertheless: that children who do not do well in school are somehow “bad” children—children perhaps not entitled, or less entitled, to parental love or approval. There is no question that Davaa intends no such meaning, and that’s the point; it is grossly irresponsible of her not to control the implications that arise from the things she shows us. In order to control these, of course, she would first have to anticipate these. That is part of her job; but Davaa simply presses ahead, oblivious to what the hell she is doing. Artists need to think about what they are doing and about the consequences of what they are doing. Apparently this wasn’t stressed in the German film school that Davaa attended.
It has become a commonplace for reviewers to invoke the name of Robert J. Flaherty when they discuss this film. There are two legitimate grounds for doing so. One pertains to Davaa’s preparation for shooting. As he and his wife, Frances, used to do with those communities Flaherty would document in his films, Davaa spent months living with the Batchuluun family, observing their routines and traditions, and gaining their trust. (If I’m not misremembering, Flaherty would sometimes spend years doing this.) Moreover, there is a thematic linkage; like Flaherty, Davaa considers the encroachment of modern times and “civilization” on the lives of her isolated, traditional subjects and mourns the imminent disappearance of their “natural” way of life. On the latter point, however, Flaherty never stooped so clumsily to such mind-boggling contrivance as does Davaa to make the point that the outer, larger, contemporary world sucks. This is the episode to which I refer. Before going to town to sell the sheepskins, the father asks his wife if there is anything she needs. Oh, yes, a new ladle. We duly note that the sturdy ladle she has is in no apparent need of replacement and so, knowing what a manipulative filmmaker Davaa is, we begin to wonder. The husband indeed brings his wife a spanking new, mass-manufactured plastic ladle, which melts into a mess the first time it is left a minute too long in a bubbling cooking pot. You know that a filmmaker is less than first-rate when she is making a point with which you entirely agree and still you are embarrassed at how she has contrived to make the point.
The father also brings home a small toy dog to replace Zochor, unawares that Nansal has defied his order and kept the living animal. The toy dog is pink. As I dabbed away tears that were the result of not entirely irrelevant memories from childhood of our family’s artificial pink Christmas tree, I additionally wondered whether the father really could be as obtuse and insensitive as the fictional stuff here suggests. Things keep separating out of Davaa’s “blend” of documentary and fiction. This is not a good film.
But there are good things in it. I have noted some of them already. Another is its lovely observation of the children’s behavior. Nansal’s two younger siblings, Nansalmaa and Batbayer, have a priceless moment together, for example, as they play with the family’s porcelain Buddha until one reminds the other that they ought not to be doing this. It falls to Nansal to herd the sheep, transporting the flock in advance of the family move to a new patch of grazing land, and she is up to the task! Nansal cuts a figure on horseback of real competence, although even here Davaa is playing a bit with us since, earlier, she drew comic capital out of Nansal’s “cute” incompetence at gathering dung. Davaa is obsessively fond of balancing things out.
But it is in its final movement that the film really comes alive. There are three parts of this movement. One is the dismantling of the family yurt (tent), a process that Davaa meticulously records from all angles, achieving at least two wonderful shots: one providing an overhead view of the yurt’s radial structure of metal rods—elusively mysterious and somehow sacred; and another, at ground level, showing two of the children inside, absorbed in their activities, as their home is taken apart around them. The second aspect is the family’s trek, in exquisite long-shots, across the Gobi Desert. It is during this event that the family discovers that Batbayer has somehow been left behind, causing the father to gallop back. Before leaving where they had been living, the father had tied Zochor to a fence so that the dog would not follow them; but he had tied the animal loosely enough so that it could eventually break free. This, Zochor does when the toddler toddles off to a flock of vultures on the ground. Zochor rescues the boy by barking the vultures away. Let me tell you that the shot of the gathered vultures is ominous, thrilling and terrifying beyond anything in Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds (1963). In any case, a grateful father restores Zochor to his rightful place in the family. He now has evidence that the animal’s soul is pure and good; he is now willing to risk the family’s destruction, should the animal attract wolves to the flock, in order to discharge what he takes to be his devotional duty. His ultimate acceptance of Zochor is a solemn, religious and, at this point, necessary act. It isn’t sentimental because he isn’t at all capitulating to his elder daughter’s wish for the dog she has grown attached to. Instead, he is humbly fulfilling a religious obligation and executing justice.
I am somewhat bewildered by those reviewers who feel that this resolution, unspeakably ham-fisted and contrived, damages an otherwise “pure” film. I hope that I have shown that The Cave of the Yellow Dog isn’t so pure even before the ending. But the last part of the last movement is truly exciting and scary, and here again the toddler’s imperiled existence symbolically adds to our sense of the imperiled existence of this particular family and other families like it.
However, no one can reasonably compare Davaa’s film favorably to Flaherty’s Nanook of the North (1922) or Werner Herzog’s Herdsmen of the Sun (1988), two other films about disappearing cultures. Davaa is fairly young, and she might yet prove herself an artist. Thus far, though, she has proven herself a magician whose sleight of hand is all too visible.