With Cave of the Yellow Dog, Mongolian writer/director Byambasuren Davaa returns to the strange blend of documentary realism and mythic allegory that she explored in her feature debut, The Story of the Weeping Camel (2003).
And while there is nothing here that quite matches the bizarre intensity of the sequence that gave the earlier film its title, Cave of the Yellow Dog still resonates with an evocative symbolism that belies the apparent simplicity of its storytelling. There may be no camels weeping, but this remains a mournful elegy for the passing of an entire culture.
Returning to the steppes to spend the summer with her nomadic family at about the same time as a wolf has come back to menace their livestock, young Nansal (Nansal Batchuluun) is full of stories of life in the city where she has begun attending school. While on an errand for her mother (Buyandulam Batchuluun), Nansal finds a dog in a cave and wants to adopt it – but her father (Urjindorj Batchuluun) is opposed to this, fearing that the stray has been living amongst wolves and will attract even more of the predators to his flocks. The bond between girl and dog grows – but then the father returns from a business trip in the city, and Nansal and her family must decide, as they pack up their yurts and move on to their next temporary settlement, whether to bring the dog (named Zochor) along with them, or to leave it behind forever.
Nansal, her parents and her two younger siblings (Batbayar Batchuluun, Nansalmaa Batchuluun) deliver remarkably unaffected performances, not least because the camera, shooting mostly in long shots from a distance, becomes a casual observer of the family’s unscripted behaviours, lending the film a naturalism that borders on social anthropology – except that their every utterance and gesture appears also to be in the service of a broader fable, where the lure of the city and the encroachment of modernity represent no less a threat to the nomads’ traditional way of life than the circling wolves and vultures. Just as Zochor strays somewhere between wildness and domesticity, Nansal is drifting away from her native plains (where, like Zochor, she easily becomes lost) towards a more urbanised life. She may still play with earthy dung, but what she fashions from it is “yurts on top of each other like in the city”.
In the very middle of the film, a wise old woman tells Nansal a legend about a cave, a yellow dog, a girl’s coming of age, and reincarnation – and while each of these motifs reflects upon aspects of Nansal’s own situation, it is reincarnation, in all its uneven cyclicality, that best encapsulates the film’s central dynamic. For while we do not know what will become of this family, already all the signs of change are there to be seen, and as once again they dismantle their home and set off on their waggon train to an uncertain future, we are left to wonder if this is the end of an era, or just a new beginning.