Across the rolling grasslands of Mongolia, a young dog gambols and sniffs. His adoptive owner, six-year-old Nansal, follows the dog on her tiny horse. In the distant background, a curtain of luminous rain cleaves the face of a mountain. It seems illuminated from within, and suggests a weightless portal into a possible heaven.
The Cave of the Yellow Dog, a new quasi-documentary from Mongolia, is the second feature by Byambasuren Davaa. The Oscar-nominated director of The Story of the Weeping Camel (2003), Davaa has a knack for creating states of enchantment on film—or rather, for capturing those states with her careful regard for landscape, animals and the spiritual relationship between humans and the physical world.
Whereas The Story of the Weeping Camel focused on its titular species to the near-exclusion of Homo sapiens, The Cave of the Yellow Dog concentrates on a nomad family in the Altai region of northwest Mongolia—father, mother, three small children—and the impact made upon them by a stray puppy.
Little Zochor (Mongolian for “Spot”) is frisky, unfettered and troublesome. He’s not unlike Nansal (played beautifully by Nansalmaa Batchuluun), an uninhibited child who discovers him in a cave while collecting the dung piles her family uses for fuel. Zochor is mostly white, with black ears, and a black muzzle with a pencil-thin white stripe down the center. Mischievous and immature, he has a mind of his own, and is more than happy to follow Nansal home.
Her father (Urjindorj Batchuluun) distrusts the dog. He’s just lost two sheep, and worries that tiny Zochor could be attached to a pack of wolves who will find his scent and eliminate more of the family’s herd. Such is the cultural shift in the Mongolian steppes—when nomads abandon their lifestyle, selling their goats and sheep and yaks and moving the city, they leave their dogs behind. The dogs then mingle with wolves, losing the lessons of domestication.
Nansal can’t accept this. “It’s not about wanting him or not,” her mother tells her. To illustrate, the mother tells Nansal to bite the palm of her hand. She can’t, of course. “Although it seems so close,” Mother says, “It’s still too far away to bite.” Lesson for Nansal: “You can’t have everything that you see.” It’s a strong argument that her parents make, but when you’re six and besotted with a dog, as only child can be, any word against that beloved animal is unbearable.
The real scene-stealer in The Cave of the Yellow Dog is the remarkable Nansalmaa Batchuluun. Davaa must have spent weeks engendering the child’s trust, so great is the sense of spontaneity and unguardedness in her scenes. In her “Director’s Notes,” included in the film’s electronic press kit, Davaa says, “I am convinced that every person has his own—often undiscovered—creativity. My task as the director was to convince my protagonists of their own creativity.”
Equally key to her job, I’d surmise, was the miracle of luck, of simply waiting for the right moments and being there with the camera when they unfolded. When Nansal plays with Zochor, her fascination and delight are so genuine that we see them vibrate throughout her body. When Nansal’s father tells her she can’t keep the dog, or tries to make her leave it behind when it’s time to break camp, the child’s pouting and desperation are heartbreaking. Is there anything more dreadful to a child—especially one whose faith is still untested by pain and loss—than separating from a beloved animal?
It’s rare to witness a child whose screen presence feels so wholly natural. When it happens—as it did with Elizabeth Taylor in National Velvet, or Mary Badham in her scenes with Gregory Peck in To Kill a Mockingbird, or Victoire Thivisol, the four-year-old French child in Ponette, or Zhou Ren-ying, the scrappy waif in the Chinese film, The King of Masks—it feels miraculous. This is one of the great joys of the movie-lover: to see a soul revealed, to witness a blending of part and actor so complete that we can’t distinguish where one emerges and the other disappears.
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.