Friday, June 08, 2012

BFF ’12: Old Dog

In news of yet more outrageous but hardly surprising interference in Tibetan affairs, China has just announced an open-ended ban on foreign tourism to the occupied country.  However, friends and admirers of the Himalayan nation can still get a glimpse into the on-the-ground realities there through Pema Tseden’s narrative feature Old Dog (trailer here), which screens tonight at the Brooklyn Heights Cinema, as part of the 2012 BrooklynFilm Festival.

Not content with Tibet’s sovereignty, China also covets its dogs.  For the Chinese nouveau riche, nomad mastiffs are the newest status symbol.  It is a seller’s market, assuming unscrupulous dog merchants do not steal the traditional family canines first.  Dog-nappings are so pervasive, Gonpo figures he might as well sell his father-in-law Akku’s beloved pet and at least get some money for him.  Akku does not see it that way, enlisting the help of his a local copper kinsman to retrieve the shaggy pooch.  Unfortunately, the dog brokers are not about to forget about so prized a pooch.

If Jia Zhangke remade Old Yeller, it might look something like Old Dog.  Helmed by Tibetan auteur Pema Tseden (a.k.a. Wanma Caidan when he is in China), it is a slight departure for distributor dGenerate Films, the independent Chinese cinema specialists.  However, Tseden’s naturalistic documentary-like approach is quite in line with the Digital Generation style for which they are named.  He and cinematographer Sonthar Gyal capture the sweeping grandeur of the landscape, as well as the hardscrabble nature of life for Tibetans, both in cities and in the countryside.  It is also clear the last fifty-three years have been devastating for contemporary Tibetan architecture.

Amongst a cast clearly at home on the Tibetan Steppe, Lochey gives a remarkably assured performance as Akku.  Deeply human and humane, his character bears witness to the steady corrosion of traditional Tibetan values, but he does not necessarily do so silently.  Drolma Kyab’s performance as the hash-up son-in-law Gonpo is also quite honest and engaging.  Indeed, the small ensemble is so completely unaffected and natural on-screen, Old Dog could easily pass for a documentary.  Yet, it has a very real dramatic arc.

Already the focus of a career retrospective at the Asia Society (amounting to two films at the time), Tseden is a filmmaker of international stature.  Taking some subtly implied but recognizable jabs at Chinese hegemony over Tibet, Old Dog is his boldest film yet.  Cineastes will earnestly hope there will be more to follow.  Quietly powerful, Old Dog is highly recommended during this year’s BFF.  It screens tonight (6/8) at the Brooklyn Heights Cinema, with Tseden appearing for Q&A afterward, as well as this Saturday (6/9) at IndieScreen in Williamsburg.