Byambasuren Davaa
The Cave of the Yellow Dog
Medium: film
Year: 2005
Writer/director: Byambasuren Davaa
Keywords: documentary
Country: Germany
Language: Mongolian
Format: 93 minutes
Website category: Asian
Review date: 20 March 2013
It's the follow-up from the director of The Story of the Weeping Camel. It's also kind of puzzling. Nothing happens. It would be generous to say even that its story moves slowly, because I think it's hard to accuse it of having a story at all.
I admire its courage in being unwatchable by normal definitions, but it's an endurance test. I made it to the halfway point without clock-watching or having to fight an urge to fall asleep, but after that I was in trouble. My uncle dozed. My dad was puzzled. Everything on screen is gentle and beautiful and my mother loved it, but wow, is it hard work to stay focused on. You'll drift. Your eyes will droop. Modern movies generally don't want to test your attention span, but this thing is the willpower equivalent of a fifty-mile mountain hike. It beat me, for a start. I was awake at the beginning and I was awake at the end, but I couldn't vouch for every second in between.
Again it's about Mongolian nomad culture, but this time Byambasuren Davaa's taking us to a different region of the country. Mongolia's big. It's the 19th largest country in the world, but also the most sparsely populated. Last time we went south, to the Gobi desert, but this time we're in the mountains. It looks like Scotland or Switzerland. Lush grasslands roll away from us, losing their vivid greens as they recede, until eventually the mountains on the horizon look so blue that you'd think they were floating in the sky. There are lovely rocks. (Rocks are cool.) We're with a family of two parents and three tiny children, who keep animals and look out for wolves.
Death is an important part of the film, incidentally, although the theme's allowed to drift after the first ten minutes. Wolves have killed sheep. The father and the eldest daughter bury a dog, while discussing reincarnation. "Everyone dies, but no one is ever truly dead." (Mongolia is mostly Tibetan Buddhist.) Similarly this beautiful land contains predators (wolves, dogs, vultures, humans), which is all part of the circle of life. Thinking about this, maybe the beginning of the film is set after the beginning and we're watching what happened when the dog eventually died and life went on? It's not important, but it would fit.
We're just watching the family live their lives. A small amount of story happens, but by "small" I mean "about four minutes' worth". That daughter finds a dog. (No, it's not yellow. It's white, with a black head.) The father doesn't want her to keep it. That's it, more or less.
What the film's really about is just spending time with these people. It's a documentary with no narration. It's boring in a peaceful way. It has long, languid shots that follow our family around and capture spontaneous, truthful little vignettes that couldn't be staged and will make you smile. "Don't play with Buddha" is one. The palm-biting challenge is another. The animals and children are gloriously, entirely real. The daughter's nearly the same size as the dog and she's capable of talking to it like she'd talk to her siblings. Meanwhile the family isn't out of touch with civilisation, sending children away to school for weeks (or months?) and having access to motorbikes and a minibus if necessary. As with the similar nomads in the Gobi desert, they're normal people. They're just normal people who happen to be able to ride horses at the age of four.
The movie itself left me nonplussed. I sort of liked it, but it's the definition of a motionless picture. I then watched the director's interview on the DVD extras, which almost felt like watching the second half of the film.
Byambasuren Davaa is a lively young lady and I think she's cool. As she explains (in German), her goal was simply to capture on film a way of life that's disappearing. It's about respect for nature. It's about death, reincarnation and that circle of life I mentioned. Above all, though, it's simply about discovering these people's everyday lives, one day at a time. They live by the sun and the weather. Their lives have the rhythm of this film, slow and set against beautiful scenery. Davaa had lots of ideas for what she was going to try to capture, but almost none of them proved to be possible. Instead, like last time, she just gave us a film of patient, spontaneous observations and no narration. There's nothing between you and the Mongolian steppes. You're not being shown anything. You're simply there, with them.
Given all this, I'd defend the lack of a voice-over, although I'd have been tempted to splice that director's interview straight into the film. It feels important enough. Nevertheless the movie's unwatchability is its integrity. Making it more normal would make it less special.
This film was submitted as Mongolia's contender for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar and won the 2006 Deutscher Filmpreis Award for Best Children's Picture. However it's clearly far less strong than The Story of the Weeping Camel. It occasionally made me smile or even laugh, but there's nothing to compare with the emotional hook of a mother camel rejecting her calf. The lack of a voice-over is lulling, not challenging. Even the animals are less cute, because they're not having babies. At one point I wondered if they'd been leaving that dog to die, tethered to the spot like that, but that's the nearest the film gets to having anything happen.
It has a yak, though. Everyone loves yaks.