Film Destination #2: Mongolia.
The Cave of the Yellow Dog (2005), Dir. Byambasuren Davaa
In the past 2.5 weeks, our attention has shifted drastically from quarantine life to addressing 400 years of racism. In response, the content I listen to, read, and watch, has changed. I wondered how to go about this newsletter, but the premise remains what I consider to be good and true, which is that watching films from around the world is a good way to widen perspective.
The Cave of the Yellow Dog is a relief from the storm, a perfect film for the couch blues. You get to unobtrusively enter the life of a rural Mongolian fam, the Batchuluuns. Dung-picking, sheep-skinning, meat-smoking, and cheese-making are all observed and slightly understood (my favorite kind of learning, to my own demise). And the landscape is stunning, with flatlands that carry on forever and mountains that a little girl climbs on horseback, alongside a stray dog that carries the plot of the film.
The quietness of the film is ever the more bold considering how few Mongolian films exist. At most 50, many of which are historical dramas related to Genghis Khan. To choose to create an Air Bud style film is mindblowing- imagine if you were the filmmaker of the 50th film to ever get made in the US. But this definitely isn’t a suburban tale featuring a golden retriever that loves chocolate pudding and plays basketball. Here, stray dogs are the lingering ghosts of folks who’ve left for the city. Here, stray dogs interbreed with wolves, posing a danger to the remaining families whose main livelihood is sheep. Here, the scary clown villain is the fact that everyone else has transitioned to a money-based society, and you’re left stranded, wondering if your kids will be able to make it out alive when you’re already struggling this hard.
If the Batchuluuns move to the city, their children will have better access to money and opportunities. That comes at the cost of abandoning and contributing to the evanescence of a traditional lifestyle. The Batchuluuns make a choice at the end of the film, which I won’t spoil. But we are all making that choice, every day, in deciding whether the life we know should be traded for change.
There’s a particular scene that remains embedded in my memory. The little girl is lost while riding her horse and stops at a neighbor’s yurt during a rainstorm. The neighbor, a woman perhaps in her 80s, lives alone. She shares two stories with the little girl. It felt as though these stories were always were with the woman, keeping her company, invisible decorations for solitude. I was struck by the wisdom of generations that stories store, a weight that an off-hand “Well, I think…” statement cannot match.
There was a very exciting week last year when I was considering riding the Trans-Siberian Railway through Russia, Mongolia, and China. While doing research, I watched this video on the process of making several Mongolian breakfast delicacies. The video and The Cave of the Yellow Dog show the same technique for heating and stirring milk, which somehow makes milk look like the best thing that could ever happen to you in your day.
Also, the soundtrack is beautiful. It’s composed by traditional Mongolian musician and throat singer, Ganpurev Dagvan.
Next in Georgia,