Now that I have gotten through the “prestige” Hollywood movies the studio sent me in November and December, I can finally get back to the kind of movie that I really care about—the leftwing documentary or the narrative film made in some peripheral nation on a shoestring budget featuring a non-professional cast. When I took one look at the back of the DVD for “Old Dog”, I knew I was back on native ground:
When a young man notices several thefts of mastiffs from Tibetan farm families, he decides to sell his family’s dog before it is stolen and sold on the black market. His father, an aging Tibetan herder, is furious when he discovers their dog missing. When the father seeks to buy the dog back, it leads to a series of tragicomic events that threaten to tear the family apart, while showing the erosion of Tibetan culture under the pressures of contemporary society.
Ah, just my kind of film. Given the theme, I was willing to cut the film a lot more slack than something like “Inside Llewyn Davis”. Fortunately, the film succeeded just as much as art as it did as social commentary.
The Tibet of “Old Dog” has nothing in common with the idealized version that revolves around the Dalai Lama and snow-capped mountains. This is not Shangri-La but a landscape of arid rolling hills and dirt roads. The main character, a young unemployed longhaired alcoholic man named Gonpo (Drolma Kyab), is seen as the film begins driving a noisy and underpowered motorcycle slowly along a dirt road with a strange looking dog with matted fur trailing behind him attached to a chain.
Wary about the growing number of dog thefts in rural Tibet where the breed—a Tibetan mastiff coveted by rich Chinese yuppies in the same way that some Americans dote on French bulldogs—is used to herd sheep rather than be shown off on a leash in a rich neighborhood, Gonpo has decided to sell the dog to a man in the nearest town who sells them to Chinese customers.
With the proceeds, he has lunch with his cousin, the local chief of police, and then spends some more on getting drunk. He returns late at night and teeters back into the house he shares with his father, a man who still dresses in traditional garb and raises sheep on a hillside, and his wife. The next day his father is angry that he has sold the dog behind his back and demands that he bring it back. That he does, but not without complications. Like their dogs, the Tibetan rural folk with roots in a nomadic mode of existence, have an uphill battle against the dominant Chinese nationality.
Although the film has an important message to deliver, it is not preachy. For those familiar with the deadpan minimalist irony of an Aki Kaurismäki or a Jim Jarmusch will be familiar with director Pema Tseden’s style. In an iconic scene, you see father, son, and daughter-in-law sitting glassy-eyed in front of a poorly focused television set watching a Chinese infomercial for a bracelet that looks like gold but that is even better.
“Old Dog” can be seen on Amazon.com and is well worth it for those looking for a film off the beaten track. It doesn’t get much more off than this jewel of a film.
Probably by coincidence, “Old Dog” has much in common with “Old Partner”, Korean film that mourns the passing of a traditional way of life embodied in a work animal’s role in the life of country people. I reviewed the film, which is now available as a Netflix DVD, back in December of 2009. I will repeat the review now just to allow you to read them side-by-side for comparison’s sake.
In keeping with the high standards of the Korean film industry that I have called attention to in past reviews, one is a documentary titled “Old Partner” showing at the Film Forum. The “old partner” referred to in the title is a 40 year old ox on his last legs, the prize possession of Choi Won-kyun and Lee Sam-soon, husband and wife farmers, who are stooped over from old age and backbreaking work. The general mood of the film evokes Thomas Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard”, written in 1750 as a kind of resigned protest against industrialization:
The curfew tolls the knell of parting day,
The lowing herd wind slowly o’er the lea
The plowman homeward plods his weary way,
And leaves the world to darkness and to me.
In the same manner as Gray’s poem, there is a muted but recognizable rejection of industrialism’s benefits. Choi refuses to use insecticide because it threatens to poison his ox. He also refuses to use a rice-harvesting machine because too many grains will be lost. Even though he is in his 80s, he prefers to gather up the rice by hand. His wife, who is forced to work alongside him, nags him throughout the film. Sell the ox. Get a machine. Use insecticide. He ignores her all the while, facilitated no doubt by the fact that he is nearly deaf. Meanwhile, the only sound he strains to hear is the bell attached to his ox’s neck that provides a kind of soundtrack throughout the film. Its constant tinkling reminds you more of a Buddhist temple than hard labor, accentuated by the sight of the beast’s oddly beatific gaze.
Choi travels everywhere in a cart drawn by his beloved ox, even to the nearest city where he observes a demonstration by local activists against the importation of American cattle. They chant “No to Mad Cow!” Choi says not a word as he trudges slowly by, but it is clear that he is in sympathy, as is the film’s director no doubt.
An interview with director Lee Chung-ryoul is worth quoting in its entirety:
Where did the idea from the movie come from? Why do you think it was important to make this film?
I happened to visit a cattle market for coverage in 1999 where I saw an ox shed tears looking at his former owner as he was being pulled away by his new owner. That moment reminded me of my father’s ox from my childhood.
Before industrialization, the business of the Korean countryside was the sole domain of oxen and our fathers. They were heroes, idols and the driving force of Korean agricultural development. Since industrialization, however, they had nothing to do. Oxen became only beef; our fathers retired and aged with an aging town.
The situation makes me sad. So I wanted to recollect the devotion and beautiful sympathy of farmers and oxen in this film, and the scenery might be the last moment of this age. This film is dedicated to the oxen and our fathers devoted to this land.
How did you meet this farmer?
For five years, I traveled around the nation to find a proper ox and farmer. In early 2005, someone told me there was a proper man and an ox in a small town in Bong-wha. I was so lucky to encounter them.
What elements of the South Korean culture are portrayed in the movie?
Before the introduction of farm machinery to the countryside, our farms totally depended upon oxen. This film portrays the core of Korean agricultural practices. Also, it shows aspects of traditional Korean culture, such as patriarchy, unequal conjugal relationships and the commitment of parents to educate their children at any cost. It also shows the affection for oxen, who are considered family members and collaborative partners, not just animals.