Old Yaller Goes to Mongolia


yelllow_dog.jpgThe Mongolian film The Cave of the Yellow Dog is one that I really wanted and expected to like, since I am generally a sucker for films set in that area of the world. But it proved a rather long 93 minutes. The problematic issue may be genre. This film proves a somewhat unsatisfying blend of fiction and documentary, lacking the dramatic story line we expect in fiction and the depth of depiction we expect in documentary.

The filmmaker, Byambasuren Davaa, was born in Mongolia in 1971, and her goal in this film is to bring that lost world of her youth to our attention: “the viewer is introduced to my Mongolian culture. On the one hand the fascinating life of the self-sufficient nomad family with its animal herds, and on the other hand our Mongolian peculiarities.” But she needs a stronger narrative drive.

By focusing on just one nomadic family to the exclusion of almost all other characters, Davaa (both director and screen writer) puts a lot of weight on the meaning of their lives. But two adults and three small children, however charming and attractive (and the real Batchuluun family, who are not actors, are certainly that) simply do not provide enough dramatic action. As to insights into the disappearing nomadic culture, the lone case of this family seems insufficient to investigate the meaning of cultural change. If it were even an extended family—with cousins, aunts, uncles, grandparents—the formula might have worked more successfully.

The plot involves a little girl, Nansal, who seems to be around six or seven years old, finding a young stray dog in a cave when she is out collecting dung for the fire. She brings home her pet, which she has already named Zochor (“Spot”), only to discover that her father wants to get rid of it, fearing it might have lived in the cave with wolves who will attack his sheep. Wolves are often mentioned in the film, by the father and by local hunters, but we never see a single wolf. One is reminded of Chekhov’s remark that if a gun is mentioned in the first act of a play it must go off by the final act. The viewer is disappointed not only by the absence of wolf attacks in the film but also by the fact that we never even see a long shot of a wolf in the distance. How much of a threat are they? And it’s this kind of dissatisfaction that plagues the film. Davaa is simply not a storyteller. The father-daughter friction is too slight to carry the film, and even when the toddler brother disappears for some hours, he never seems at much risk, and his quasi-rescue by the dog from hovering vultures is rather undramatically presented.

The film’s strength is visual, and credit must go to Daniel Schoenauer as director of photography. The view of the top of the world is stunning: the big sky, the vast grassy plains, the slow-moving clouds. We are bewitched by the largeness of the space and the bright colors of the domestic life of these nomads: the clothes, the yurt where they live, their household objects. All of these are in stunning colors. Clearly these mountain people possess a compelling aesthetic sense. The faces of the children are lovely and alive. But still photos might be almost as effective as this film in presenting a sense of their lives.

The attempt to make the story of this particular family inform us about the disappearing nomad culture is somewhat awkwardly constructed, with dialogue between the father and local hunters on how the times are changing. They point out that fewer humans live in the area, that more and more people are moving to the city, and this situation makes everyone less safe. Wolves have grown bolder. There is no more community. People must send their children to the city to be educated.

Of course, for anyone curious about nomadic life in that region, The Cave of the Yellow Dog does provide a visual record of daily existence, and a rather compelling sequence towards the end in which the yurt is totally dismantled and packed up so that the family can move on. The whole family works on this process, and one sees just how physically demanding this simple life is. Throughout the film the mother is constantly working at an endless stream of domestic tasks. These people are stoic and decent. It is a loving family who join in shared labor that leads to the oxen pulling their worldly goods off in a new direction. The mother and father perform a ceremonial departure rite in which they thank the land for having let them stay there.

As we watch their heavily loaded wagons on wooden wheels moving out across the steppes, we sense what life might have been like in rural Europe seven or eight hundred years ago. But then, suddenly, a truck drives by them on the pitted road, blaring a political announcement to vote in the next election -- a powerful moment of two worlds colliding. We can see that a way of life is in fact dying. The film’s slow, bittersweet movement both celebrates and mourns the existence of this small courageous family. Davaa has captured an image (if not a story) that lingers in our consciousness. - Victoria Sullivan

Ms. Sullivan is a poet and playwright who lives in Manhattan and has a little cabin outside of Woodstock, NY. When not brooding, she is generally traveling, writing, or staring at the trees. She also loves to laugh.