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Cinema Junkie by Beth Accomando

The Cave of the Yellow Dog

A nomadic family is the focus of a new film from Mongolia called The Cave of the Yellow Dog (opening December 1 at Landmark's La Jolla Village Theaters). The film blurs the line between documentary and fiction. But this small independent film runs the risk of getting lost in the deluge of big holiday releases.

Cave of the Yellow Dog girl and dog

Nansaa finds a stray dog in The Cave of the Yellow Dog

The Cave of the Yellow Dog opens with a father answering his inquisitive young daughters questions. He explains that hes burying a dog with its tail under its head so that it might be reborn as a person with a ponytail. The scene reveals how this nomadic family living in present day Mongolia believes in reincarnation and in a natural cycle of life in which everything dies but nothing is really dead. They also believe in adapting to their environment rather than trying to force their environment to adapt to them. So they devise clever ways to ensure nothing is wasted. Take the animals they raise. The cows provide milk, and their dung fuels the fire and can even be used as toys for the kids to play with.


One day, the eldest daughter, Nansaa, brings home an adorable stray dog she finds in a cave.

Her father objects to the animal but his stubborn young child does her best to keep the new pet out of dads way in the hopes shell be able to keep him. And thats all there is to the story. No explosions. No car chases. Just an elegant mix of documentary and fiction in which youre never sure where one leaves off and the other begins. This cinematic sleight of hand is gracefully pulled off by Mongolian-born filmmaker Byambasuren Davaa. Her last film was the Oscar-nominated Story of the Weeping Camel. Davaa has expressed a desire to document her culture and her films achieve this without making an issue of doing so.

Cave of the Yellow Dog girls

Nansaa and her sister in The Cave of the Yellow Dog

The Cave of the Yellow Dog, as with her earlier film, uses daily routines as the backdrop for a low-key drama. We observe how the mother cooks milk for cheese and how the father skins a goat. These details of daily life are gently integrated into the story so we have a complete picture of what its like to live in this rugged central Asian country located between Russia and China. Davaa also provides insights into the way these nomadic, mostly Buddhist people view the world. Take a scene where Nansaa gets caught in the rain.

An old woman provides shelter as well as a practical lesson in reincarnation. To demonstrate the improbability of returning as a human, she has Nansaa hold a needle and then pour rice over it. When a grain lands on top of the needle that represents the odds of being reborn as a human. Its a lovely and practical explanationeasy to comprehend yet poetic in its simplicity. And thats how Davaa depicts their belief systemnot as something quaintly charming but rather as something that arises practically from their way of life. Cows eat grass and then produce milk thats made into cheese that feeds the family. Thus, the idea of reincarnation finds support in daily life. Davaa also impresses us with the efficient way the family lives. In a marvelous sequence, she shows them disassembling the yurt, their tent-like home, so that they can move on.


Its amazing to see how well designed the dwelling is. A small windmill at the center provides electricity, and the structure can be completely broken down and neatly packed onto a pair of carts. Yet the design is not merely functional. As with so many things in this nomadic life, theres also a sense of beautybe it the colorful decorations on the furniture, the affection displayed by the family or the bows that adorn the childrens hair. And the children are beautiful as wellbright, inquisitive and often left to their own devices. Nansaa and her siblings are fully at ease in front of the camera, which reflects both their confidence and Davaas unobtrusive filming techniques.

Cave of teh Yellow Dog Family

Nansaa and her family in The Cave of The Yellow Dog

Theres a wonderful moment when theyre playing with the limited items in their home. The toddler son picks up a porcelain deity and his sister quickly scolds him explaining in no uncertain terms that you cannot play with god. Davaa doesnt try to lecture us about a culture that may be heading for extinction. But she does accurately record its existence and lets us ponder what the future may hold in an increasingly crowded world with ever advancing technology.

What makes The Cave of the Yellow Dog such a joy is the way director Byambasuren Davaa lets her film effortlessly unfold. Her warm, humanistic approach reveals respect for the people and their culture, and reflects the simple yet lyrical storytelling traditions of her country. Dont let this small film get lost in the onslaught of big holiday releases.

Companion viewing: The Story of the Weeping Camel, The Color of Paradise, The Mirror JoshuaFerrari
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