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Using a furry shepherd’s dog as a metaphor for vanishing Tibetan folkways, Pema Tseden‘s Old Dog offers Westerners a view of life on the Himalayan plains that is unclouded by the romanticism an outsider might bring. It’s also uncluttered by much of a plot, and the director’s unadorned style — given the consumer-grade look of Sonthar Gyal‘s videography, one might not guess Tseden has made two prior features — makes the film a rough sell with viewers who lack a serious interest in the region. The picture is unlikely to find an art house perch beyond fests and one-off bookings.
Gonpo is an aimless young villager who decides to take advantage of the fact that urban Chinese businessmen have fetishized nomad mastiffs, buying up animals traditionally used to keep herds in line. He rides into town and sells his family’s dog without getting permission from his father, who angrily goes the next day to undo the sale. The stubborn old man is pressured by a local hustler, who offers him escalating sums while noting that neighbors who’ve refused to sell their dogs often see them stolen instead. (All the film’s actors appear to be first-timers.)
This conflict plays out in distractingly long, nearly silent scenes, with Tseden (reportedly the first director working in China to shoot films entirely in the Tibetan language) often observing characters who travel long distances to reach his static camera or sit before it doing nothing. A few of the film’s compositions are pleasing, but many suffer from the filmmakers’ natural-light approach and others are badly served by editing. A single image at the end will haunt viewers, though its impact derives from the scene’s heartbreaking action as much as from Tseden’s exactly-right presentation.
The director is uninterested in the dog itself, never showing him in close-up despite offering many long takes of Gonpo staring into the middle-distance. The creature has no observable personality, making his function even more obviously symbolic of the things traditional communities lose due to increasing urbanization.
Production Companies: Himalay Audio & Visual Culture Communication Co., Tsanpo Culture Development Co.
Cast: Lochey, Drolma Kyab, Tamdrin Tso, Yanbum Gyal, Chickyong Gyal, Demchok Gyamtso, Pema Kyid, Gon Gyal
Director-Screenwriter: Pema Tseden
Producers: Sangye Gyamtso
Director of photography: Sonthar Gyal
Editors: Sangye Bhum, Guokang
No rating, 88 minutes
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