Director Pema Tseden has almost single-handedly reinvented Tibetan cinema. His previous two films, The Silent Holy Stones (2005) and The Search (2009), both screened at the Vancouver International Film Festival to great critical acclaim. Like his previous efforts, Old Dog (2011) is set in the Tibetan region of the Chinese province of Qinghai, however, his latest venture is yet to receive approval from the Chinese film bureau to be released locally – making its BFI London Film Festival appearance something of a rare treat.
The film’s titular ‘old dog’ is a scruffy, unkempt Tibetan Mastiff. After a recent spate of dog thefts in the area, Gonpo (Drolma Kyab) decides it’s best to cut his losses and sell his father’s weary hound before he gets stolen and sold on as a pet to a wealthy Chinese businessmen – a highly lucrative trade, with this breed of Mastiff fetching an extraordinarily high price on the black market.
When his father finds out that the dog he raised for 13 years has been sold by his reckless son, he instantly heads into town to reclaim what is rightfully his. After roping in the local community’s singular police officer, the father manages to successfully retrieve his dog. However, dog rustlers are still a major threat and whilst the son still sees a financial opportunity going astray, his father is keen to cling onto his traditional lifestyle and continue the rich heritage he grew up with.
Old Dog is a beautiful depiction of Tibetan life. Set in a bleak, impoverished rural community, Tseden’s film perfectly incorporates the desolate living conditions of these outpost towns whilst magnificently capturing the majestic Himalayan scenery which surrounds them. Successfully blending realism with spiritual symbolism, Tseden has created an elegant portrait of a heavily repressed area in a constant state of transition.
Behind its seemingly simple façade, Old Dog hides a profoundly spiritual message about cultural identity. At the root of this picture’s contemplation on Tibetan life is a topical message about the genuine fear regarding the area’s seemingly rapid assimilation into Han culture. The threat of globalisation is apparent at numerous points in film, whether it’s the shopping channel the family watch on their beat-up television or the symbolic role of the Tibetan Mastiff. The fact these indigenous dogs are highly sort after abroad and willingly sold on for profit showcases how quickly many are willing to give up their national heritage.
The dog’s life (especially the scenes involving the father) acts as a striking visual metaphor for the resigned sense of identity many now have towards the state of Tibet, desperate to cling on to their beliefs but aware of the battle they face. Old Dog may not have the production values of more mainstream cinema, but what it lacks in funding it more than makes up for in sentiment.
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