Everyday moments are at heart of 'Cave'
The film makes its observations through the Batchuluuns, a real nomad family who are flawlessly natural on camera. (Tartan films)
As a documentary, "The Cave of the Yellow Dog" has plenty to offer the patient viewer yearning for a deeper understanding of what it's like to be a nomadic family in today's Outer Mongolia. There's only one problem: "The Cave of the Yellow Dog" isn't really a documentary.
Written and directed by the same Byambasuren Davaa who captured quite a few hearts a couple of years ago with "The Story of the Weeping Camel," this latest quasi-docudramatic tale comes with almost no story or script. Its everyday moments may say many things about the past, present, and future of Mongolia, but narratively they're a fragile tapestry of unknotted threads. Those who thought "Weeping Camel" (co-directed by Luigi Falorni) wandered through the desert without sufficient point are likely to find "Yellow Dog" even more unsatisfying.
And yet no contemporary director makes closer bedfellows of mundane fiction and profoundly spiritual fact than Davaa -- a compliment, in case you're wondering.
"The Cave of the Yellow Dog" ("Die Höhle des gelben Hundes" in the language of its German makers) presents virtually all its observations via a real family of nomads named Batchuluun: father Urjindorj, mother Buyandulam, eldest daughter Nansal, second daughter Nansalmaa, and son Batbayer.
Conflict happens when young Nansaa (Nansal), home for a no-frills holiday from her city-based schooling, finds a stray dog she names Zochor. Her father forbids her to keep the animal -- he's worried it might endanger his sheep -- and the closest this film comes to a plot is Nansaa's defiant campaign to hang onto her scruffy new friend anyway, the same way the nomads in this grassy, northwest corner of Mongolia strain to preserve a way of life threatened by cultural shifts and the pull of urban opportunities.
Ulaanbaatar-born Davaa makes her strongest on-camera statements when she gives her movie over to Daniel Schoenauer's footage of the Batchuluuns sitting down to supper, collecting sheep dung, making cheese, or dismantling their humble yurt before moving on to the next temporary site. More than any ancient fable (including the one referenced in the title) or forced layers of symbolism and melodrama currently done better in the similarly themed "Flicka," it's the simple, child-filtered images that make the best case for what stands to be lost by progress here.
"The Cave of the Yellow Dog" doesn't brim with stunning and poignant visuals the way "The Story of the Weeping Camel" did, and its characters don't reach out to viewers nearly as well, despite flawlessly natural performances by all five Batchuluuns (adorable kids most especially). But if you want to see straight into the reincarnated soul of this culture, Davaa proves once again that she has the understanding and insight, if not always the storytelling skills, to take you there.