The third feature by China’s first Tibetan filmmaker, Pema Tseden, “Old Dog”—screening at the Museum of Modern Art daily from May 15 through May 20 as part of their excellent series “Chinese Realities/ Documentary Visions”—is a spare documentary fiction, or situation documentary, with strong intimations of allegory.
By sit doc, I mean a movie made on location with non-actors, usually playing versions of themselves, dramatizing—mainly by their activities—a particular set of circumstances. “Old Dog”, which essentially documents the disappearance of traditional Tibetan culture, is premised on the current market in Tibetan mastiffs; nouveau riche Chinese dog fanciers are evidently willing to pay a small fortune for the “exotic” mastiffs used by Tibetan sheep-herders.
Tseden, who was named one of the 50 Best Filmmakers Under 50, last year by Cinema Scope, is himself the child of nomadic herders. In his minimalist narrative, one herder’s son takes it on himself to sell the eponymous hound to a Chinese dealer before it can be stolen and sold by someone else. To call his elderly father displeased is to say the very least. The remainder of the movie concerns the old man’s various and ultimately drastic attempts to retrieve the dog and set it free. What gives this tragicomic anecdote weight is the setting—the raw construction and unpaved streets of a new town built on the Tibetan grasslands, the scenes set in tea houses, the interpolated TV broadcast fare.
Austerely pictorial, shot with the generally static camera characteristic of Chinese documentary, “Old Dog” has a powerful sense of place. Deliberately paced and understated, it lacks the fierce pantheism of Michelangelo Frammartino’s superficially similar sit-doc “Le Quattro Volte” but, as noted by Shelly Kraicer in Cinema Scope, Tseden has let the story tell itsel: Given the filmmaker’s “complicated position as a Tibetan in China, and the necessity of having his films pass stringent Chinese censorship, his ability to speak eloquently of individual despair and the emergency of cultural obliteration is masterful.”
“Old Dog” is subtle and affecting film making. The sterility of the new quasi-urban environment is underscored by the absence of children. The prize canine is an unmistakable metaphor but it is not the movie’s only old dog. Shown in close-up only in the movie’s final minutes, the irascible, incorruptible old shepherd is one as well.
Pema Tseden will be present for “Old Dog”’s May 16 screening. Among the 30 or so features yet to show in “Chinese Realities/Documentary Visions”: Zhang Yimou’s strongest and most naturalistic feature “The Story of Qiu Ju” (1992); “Yumen” (2013), a new film co-directed by J. P. Sniadecki, co-director of the single-shot tour de force “People’s Park”; Wang Bing’s three-part epic “West of the Tracks” (2003); the hybrid documentary “24 City” (2008) by China’s leading and most influential filmmaker Jia Zhangke; the complete five-hour plus version of Zhao Liang’s “Petition” (2009); two films by the pioneer of Chinese social documentary Wu Wenguang (his 1990 “Bumming in Beijing” and 2005 expose of Chinese underground culture industry, “Fuck Cinema”); and dissident artist Ai Weiwei’s “Disturbing the Peace” (2010). For anyone interested in the transformation of Chinese reality that is, in many respects, the 21st century’s key narrative, the series is a must.
Image: Icarus Films