The Cave of the Yellow Dog

Mongolian movie doesn't need car chases

By Brooks Robards - November 22, 2006

"The Cave of the Yellow Dog" which the Martha's Vineyard Film Society brings to the Katharine Cornell Theatre in Vineyard Haven on Saturday, Nov. 25, embraces a very different ethos than that of standard Hollywood fare. Instead of car chases or gunshots, it offers breathtaking cinematography of the Mongolian plains and close observation of a nomadic family of sheepherders who live there.

Written and directed by Byambasuren Davaa, whose last film, "The Story of the Weeping Camel," was nominated for a Best Foreign Film Oscar, "The Cave of the Yellow Dog" tells the deceptively simple story of a little girl who finds a stray puppy and brings it home. This docu-drama finds plenty of excitement in the quotidian events of the Batchuluun family without reducing them to mere exotica.

It begins with a dramatic, low-lit shot of a Mongolian hillside and a silhouetted man carrying a lifeless dog and followed by a child. The audience is left to puzzle over what is happening when the screen goes dark except for the howling of wolves. The next scene opens in a flood of sunlight, lush green grass and dead sheep.

Director Davaa uses such strong contrasts repeatedly to make her points about life in a rural Asian world slowly entering the 21st century. Nansaa, the six-year-old girl who is the movie's central character, arrives home from her city-based school in a truck that drives through the family's herd of sheep, scattering it. Off comes Nansaa's school uniform, replaced by traditional garb, and in no time, she is playing with her younger sister and brother. Their temporary toys are patties of sheep dung.

Much of "The Cave of the Yellow Dog's" strength comes from the masterful ways the director depicts Nansaa's behavior. The child's very natural childishness combines with the responsibilities of an oldest sibling that, while particular to this culture, would probably exist in most families.

Nansaa's mother sends her out to gather sheep dung, used for the family's fire. Already made aware of such natural dangers as wolves, the viewer watches Nansaa wander farther and farther afield. Sometimes the dung patties land in her basket; sometimes they don't.

We hold our breath as Nansaa climbs into rocky terrain. Then her dung-gathering duties are quickly forgotten when she enters a cave, discovers the black and white puppy she names Zochor (Spot) and brings him home.

Nansaa's parents see the stray dog, who may well have been raised by wolves, as a potential threat to their sheep flock. Dad leaves for town on his motorcycle to sell the pelts of the dead sheep, and Nansaa is sent out on horseback by her mother to tend the flock.

Once again the director adeptly captures the seesaw between childhood freedom and more adult responsibilities, when Zochor runs off and Nansaa abandons her herding duties to look for him, leaving the sheep to wander home by themselves. Daylight fades and stormy skies bring rain, but Nansaa is taken in by an old woman, who dries her clothes, feeds her and tells her the story of the yellow dog trapped in cave, until her mother comes to retrieve her.

Some critics have complained that "The Cave of the Yellow Dog," lacks the heart-rending pathos of "The Story of the Weeping Camel." Certainly the humble storytelling of "The Cave of the Yellow Dog" may pale before the latest Hollywood cartoon adventure for generations of moviegoers weaned on the non-stop action and hyperbolic plot points of the Hollywood film model.

After several more unexpected ups and downs, the film comes quietly to a close by watching this family that still pursues the ancient practice of animal herding, their yurt dismantled and packed up, move on, zigzagging across the landscape into the future. There's plenty to be said for the likes of Shrek and Johnny Depp doing "Charlie's Chocolate Factory, but it's hard to beat "The Cave of the Yellow Dog" for simple beauty and moral radiance.

"The Cave of the YellowDog," Saturday, Nov. 25, 7:30 p.m., Katharine Cornell Theatre, Spring Street, Vineyard Haven. Presented by Martha's Vineyard Film Society. Tickets $6 or $4 for society members.