Review: Pema Tseden’s Old Dog

"Old Dog" (dir. Pema Tseden)

By Maya Eva Gunst Rudolph

At the Slamdance Film Festival, where Pema Tseden‘s elegiac 2010 feature Old Dog made its US premiere last week, filmmakers are asked to share their “war stories” – the trials and tribulations of producing Slamdance’s class of often low-budget, off-the-grid films. While battling budget woes and zany locations mishaps is common among Slamdance filmmakers, Old Dog arrived in Park City with a self-evident “war story,” a sense of the political and poetic enmeshed in each highly emblematic frame of this story of an aging Tibetan herder and his eponymous mastiff.

Though Tibetan director Tseden was educated at Beijing Film Academy and cooperates with SARFT, Old Dog (the “uncensored” director’s cut screened at Slamdance) is a textually and contextually uncompromising film, laying bare a family’s struggle for integrity and tradition in a Tibetan mountain village. Tseden’s filmmaking – calm, measured, unafraid of long takes and wide, vacant shots – is certainly resonant with that of his Chinese contemporaries working in the independent sphere; identifiable as part of an aesthetic movement devoted to digital photography, stolid pacing, and a belief in the revelation of truth through minutiae. Indeed, as with many Chinese independent filmmakers of the past few decades, the juxtaposition of urban and rural, the geography of “development,” is crucial within Tseden’s lens both as a visual and social device.

Old Dog opens with Gonpo putting slowly into town on a scooter, dressed in customary Tibetan herder’s clothes with his raggedy mastiff trotting alongside the bike. The surrounding mountains are tremendous, almost disappearing into the sky. In contrast, the town is a pipsqueak. With its nondescript building flats and muddy roads, the town appears as a cracked root brought to life only by a few tiny details: pool players outside a small shop, kids (human) and kids (goats) playing together, goats watching a kind of urban tumbleweed (a plastic bottle container) blowin’ down Main Street. Gonpo has come to town to deliver yak butter to friends and family, including his police officer cousin, but he ends up in negotiations with Lao Wang, a Chinese trader who offers to buy the mastiff for a handsome sum. From the initial sale of the dog, the story stretches out with the efforts of Gonpo’s father, Akhu, to reclaim and protect the scruffy pup from further acquisition by traders or thieves looking to make a bundle selling the dog to wealthy mainlanders who keep Tibetan mastiffs as pets, as status symbols. It is Akhu’s struggle, both moral and physical, to keep the dog safe that drives the plot to an unexpected crescendo of violence and desperation, but Old Dog is remarkable for the textures that fill up the story and its seemingly empty spaces.

From the opening sequence of Gonpos’ sojourn into town, we encounter an aggressive, busy soundscape. The clink and roar of construction; the shrill call of pop music blaring from stores; the hum of a scooter’s motor; the bleating of goats; wind and insects; even the screechy blather of a Mandarin-language TV station in the family’s otherwise tranquil mountain home. Tseden is frugal with the movement of his camera and subjects and tends to hold a shot long after the frame is vacated by humans and animals, but the cacophony of sounds often overwhelms an abandoned landscape. In the film’s climactic moment, a prolonged event of mercy and brutality, the audience can look away if they choose, but the choked noises of this violent act are impossible to ignore.

Though the allegorical hand governing Old Dog can be heavy at times, even the most loaded metaphor is artfully incorporated into the style and narrative. Gonpo and his wife Rikso’s inability to bear children may suggest an heirless future for Tibetan traditions on a broad scale, but there’s no denying the uniquely human pain in Rikso’s face as she looks out on a courtyard of children playing. In a characteristically composed shot, Rikso and Gonpo stand symmetrically on either side of a school gates; her gaze is on the children, his out towards the distant mountains. The symbolic heart of the film may be the dog and a nomadic legacy being eradicated and somehow appropriated by the mainland, but what reverberates is this family’s desire for freedom. The few POV shots afforded the characters are almost all directed upwards, at the mountains or even the flimsy-looking police station that occupies the second floor of shoddy downtown building. This landscape, after all, is one of ups and downs, the topography that separates town and country and draws the fault lines between these two worlds.

In the end, Pema Tseden has crafted a roughly graceful film that exposes a world not often seen and, in a wash of flatly silvery light and pained expressions, leaves behind a sense of powerlessness before both the grandly natural and also that which is manipulated by man. The film’s final moments are wide, sweeping shots of Akhu moving steadily through an incredible mountain terrain and disappearing over a hill; the sound of his breathing steady, heightened, and then fading.