For a movie lover, the wait between truly original cinematic experiences can be years. You might slog through a hundred retreads or more before you stumble onto a Topsy-Turvy
or an Atanarjuat
or something as blissfully unique as The Cave of the Yellow Dog
. But when you do, the memory of a thousand Hollywood boilerplates can’t cloud the experience, and for two hours at least, your mind is fresh again. Shot on location in the Altai region of the Mongolian steppe and starring the five members of a real nomad family – none of whom had acted before – The Cave of the Yellow Dog
blurs the line between documentary and fiction and, in doing so, creates its own singular dramatic language. The story’s as slight as can be: A young girl named Nansal (Nansal Batchuluun, who is about as cute as kids get) stumbles upon a dog while walking in the plains and decides to bring it back to her family’s yurt. Her father demurs, however, worried that the dog will attract wolves, and demands his daughter leave it behind when they move for the winter. Not exactly All the President’s Men
, but then the richness of this movie doesn’t lie in its dramatic tension but rather in its uncomplicated tone of quiet and calm. It passes like a reverie, slow and contemplative, the camera sitting back like a respectful anthropologist who’s content to savor without judgment the simple traditions of an ancient culture and the unremarkable interactions of a family. Writer/director Davaa – the co-director of the similarly Mongolian-set, narrative documentary The Story of the Weeping Camel
from 2004 – spent months living with the Batchuluuns, so they would be comfortable with her when she started filming, and the result is a “lived-in” movie built organically from the clay of real life, rather than a fictional world created to accommodate the whims of narrative. Children and animals wander indiscriminately in and out of frame – probably unaware that there even is a frame – putting viewers in mind of the whole world of life that exists beyond the edges of the screen. The film’s one concession to cinematic convention comes at its ending, when a moment of abandonment leads to an act of canine heroism that would shame a thousand Lassies; after more than an hour of unaffected, untheatrical simplicity, these tense minutes feel like a heavy weight crushing your chest, and the release that follows them comes down like a reprieve. The unassuming beauty of the film’s storyline is matched by the incomparable grandeur of western Mongolia – one of those slam-dunk settings for a director of photography, like Monument Valley or Tokyo or anywhere Kate Winslet happens to be. Damn me for an unreliable cynic, but The Cave of the Yellow Dog
is a remarkable movie: touching, honest, and unassuming, without a hint of irony or false motive.