The “actors” playing Nansal’s family in The Cave of the Yellow Dog are in fact a nomadic Mongolian family who allowed Davaa to film them in a mixture of real and semi-staged moments. Consequently, there’s a crunch of authenticity when Mother cuts a block of cheese, milks the goat or sits at her sewing machine to make a school outfit for Nansal; when the father skins a pair of sheep, hoists the skins onto his motorcycle and drives off to sell them in the nearest town.
There’s also an ease and rhythm that draws from built-in intimacy: the puppylike, unself-conscious interplay of younger sister and brother; the patient discipline of the young, industrious mother. There’s a gorgeous moment when Nansal and her sister lie flat on the moist grass of the treeless steppes. Looking upward to the clouds, they identify shapes of animals—an elephant, a giraffe. We all have these moments in our childhood, when the natural world seems abundant with surprise. Davaa captures such a moment, and makes it so immediate that we’re carried back to our pre-analytic, pre-grown-up way of seeing.
In the middle of Cave, Nansal mounts one of the tiny Mongolian horses, her legs barely reaching the stirrups. Unsupervised by either parent, she takes the family’s herds of goats and sheep out to graze. Zochor tags along, but when he wanders off and gets lost, Nansal follows him, neglecting the herds.
At this point, Davaa dips into a fairy-tale world: As night falls and the rain pours, Nansal, reunited with her dog, hears a voice across the plains. It’s an old woman, toothless and apparently blind, whose robust, melodic call seems a vindication of her survival—an appreciation to the gods for all she receives. The woman takes in Nansal, dries her clothes and covers her, and tells the legend of the yellow dog: of a rich man’s daughter, incurable with illness, who recovers only when an unlucky yellow dog is removed from her home.
Davaa’s pacing is sensitive and her camerawork, lucid and intimate. Some of the best moments in her film involve the customs and happenstance of nomadic life. There’s a great sequence recording the family’s slow dismantling of their ger (or yurt), a collapsible structure that travels with them when they break camp. First, they remove a series of fitted felt tarps, then the khana (wooden framework) and uni (support columns), then the carpets that covered the earth and shielded the family against the cold and moisture.
The tarps are folded and loaded onto a series of yak-driven carts. Dressers, kitchenware, sewing machine, children—everything becomes part of the nomadic family caravan. I won’t divulge whether Nansal’s beloved Zochor is part of the caravan, only that the dog, in a moment of peril, finds the opportunity to prove his value to the doubting father.
The yak team pulls the wobbling carts slowly away from the camp, and in the opposite direction, a jeep races by, blaring a political slogan from a bullhorn. Once the jeep has passed, Davaa fixes this image on the screen. She lets it play out, and allows us to wonder if Nansal’s family will resist the pull of modernity, or opt for the spiritual enrichment of their ancestral way of life.
Read Cameron Woo's interview with director Byambasuren Davaa here.