One of the great things about the London Film Festival is being able to experience films from all around the world on the big screen, many of which might otherwise have remained unfairly in obscurity. This year, it has been very exciting to see Tibetan cinema get its turn in the limelight, with films from the region making up one of the most interesting and culturally vital movements of the last few years. “Old Dog” is a production of particular importance, being the third outing from director Pema Tseden, one of the key voices in Tibetan film, and a real up and coming talent on the international scene.
Set unsurprisingly in Tibet, the film follows an old man in a rural village, who lives with his drunkard son Gonpo and their aging nomad mastiff hound. With there having recently been a number of dog thefts in the surrounding area due to an increased demand for the valuable beasts from Mainland Chinese businessmen, Gonpo decides to sell the animal before it also gets snatched. This angers the old man, who travels into town the next day to claim it back, causing tension with his son, relations already strained due to his inability to conceive a child with his wife. Their conflict escalates as a local dog buyer repeatedly visits the old man, offering more money for the mastiff each time, despite his stubborn refusal to part with it, even in the face of what seems to be common sense.
Like Pema Tseden’s previous works and Tibetan cinema in general, “Old Dog” has a naturalistic feel, eschewing artificial lighting or sets, and with the drama unfolding in an unhurried, grounded manner. The plot itself is fairly negligible, and though the film has an intimate air, it comes across more as a documentary than a narrative feature, simply charting the everyday lives of its protagonists. The gorgeous landscapes and local scenery are captured with a keen and wonderfully studied, though unfussy or stagey eye, and this gives the film a sweeping, near epic look, with some truly breathtaking shots of the barren hills and plains.
This unchanging backdrop fits perfectly with the themes, being contrasted with the crumbling buildings and rundown houses that seem to reflect the degradation of Tibetan culture. Tseden explores this in philosophical though extremely hard-hitting fashion, with much of the film being dedicated to showing Tibetan identity and tradition in decline and as having no future, highlighted through the failure of Gonpo to carry on the family line. Although the film does represent the encroachment of Mainland China through the dog sales and theft, Tseden’s approach is resolutely and refreshingly apolitical, and he avoids any of the kind of overt criticism which might have transformed it into more of an explicit cinematic message. Instead, despite some very effective moments of gentle humour, the film aims for a feeling of sadness and doom throughout, with a sense of inevitability hanging over the proceedings and building to a surprising and genuinely shocking conclusion, which stays with the viewer long after the credits have rolled.
“Old Dog” as a whole is characterised by the same dogged determination shown by its elderly protagonist, being a film whose naturalistic style masks a powerful use of metaphor. A beautiful, highly effective and moving statement about a culture in danger of disappearing, it treats its subject matter with thoughtful even handedness, never offering any easy answers or even much hope for the future. Tseden is certainly a talent to watch out for, and the film is a fine example of the richness which Tibetan cinema has to offer.
Pema Tseden (director) / Pema Tseden (screenplay)
CAST: Yanbum Gyal