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A Breed Apart

Old Dog (2011), written and directed by Pema Tseden, produced by Zhang Xianmin  –

Westerners hear very little about Tibet, and much of the media doesn’t even called it Tibet anymore, they call it China, for Tibet has been destroyed, eradicated and reshaped in the model of the typical imperially dominated country. To us who are unfamiliar with the current state of things in Tibet a film like Old Dog seems subtly coded—a narrative that depicts the disabling of the traditional nomadic way of life in terms that are archly metaphoric. That this film has a Chinese producer was a bit surprising, but Zhang Xianmin has an interesting and socially progressive record as intellectual, cultural critic and producer. Pema Tseden, a Tibetan, refers to how the Tibetan religious tradition was knee-capped by the Chinese only in the most oblique of terms. But within a 10-minute search of the web, Old Dog‘s apparent codes crack wide open …which makes the story no less curious or compelling and no less heartbreaking.

The basis for the story of Old Dog is a new fad among Chinese nouveau riche of taking a very large and imposing breed, the Tibetan Mastiff, as urban pets. This is excruciatingly ironic since the Chinese nearly exterminated the breed during the takeover of Tibet by clubbing them to death. The market for the mastiffs has since become huge. Because of their profitability, many of these mastiffs have been stolen from their rural Tibetan owners, generally nomads–or ex-nomads–who now live in primitive homes amid fields crisscrossed by new barbed wire fencing. There is a very long scene in the film, one of its lighter moments in fact, where a sheep gets caught on the wrong side of one of these new-fangled fences. The camera is locked on a broad tableau which reaches from up a grassy hillock down to the dirt road, bounded by the fence. The herd of sheep, an amorphous mass, slowly but surely ooze up the hillside, leaving the one sheep, merely a speck in the corner of the frame, lost on the wrong side of the fence. The camera holds for about five minutes as the animal struggles to cross under the fence, attemps pathetically to jump over, patiently making its way up the line of fence posts, trying to find a gap. It finally does and makes it through. A survey of the articles on this film shows that the barbed wire—so common in the States we think nothing of it—is a new thing in Tibet and has proved a serious impediment to the nomadic grazing and herding practices. This scene is a mute comment on this one tiny aspect of life in the new Tibet/China.

Tseden tells his deceptively simple story with a discreet series of tableaus and long takes, and with dignified, albeit diffident performances by non-actors. We begin by following the easy riding Gonpo on his motorbike, an old dreadlocked Tibetan mastiff tethered by a chain trotting behind him. The narrow road of muck and rock crosses a broad treeless high plain under a wide and ever-threatening sky. Dog and man reach the bleak new town center; a muddy street lined with charmless concrete block buildings stained by rust and mold. Gonpo’s feckless swagger is reminiscent of a classic Western drifter as he dismounts his motorbike and unchains the dog. The camera follows him into a junkyard where he tries to sell the ugly critter to a hard ass Chinese dealer. We see several preternaturally placid mastiffs lying about, none appearing to have the least resemblance to the high-spirited breed that’s been described to me by people who know them as terrifyingly effective guard dogs at monasteries and nomad camps. The barkless mastiff whose extaordinary compliant nature is at odds with its reputation is just one of the subtle and bitter messages of this film. Gonpo’s hope is to unload the dog for a good price before thieves come and steal it…even though the dog is old and horribly unkempt, it has some value. The Chinese dealer, however, isn’t willing to pay enough.

Pema Tseden

Gonpo goes to the law: apparently the sheriff is his brother-in-law. While waiting for him Gonpo engages in a game of pool with some teenagers, a classic Western film trope of the stranger hustling locals which Tseden turns on its head. Curiously, he shoots the scene from directly over the pool table, an angle used in the flatly descriptive sports coverage of pool tournaments. No one makes a single shot. The dryness of the humor is funnier than the joke, but it sets up a darker truth that emerges about Gonpo later in the film. The action is slow, almost real time, for much of the film, and so you become immersed in the uneasy world of its parameters, so physically expansive yet so fraught with tension.

Gonpo persuades his brother-in-law the marshall, an amiable fellow–distinctively non-macho for a cop–to help him negotiate. Town law enforcement officers are notoriously good dealmakers, especially with businessmen operating outside the law. Gonpo gets his price, chains up the dog in the dealer’s yard and heads off. Cut to pitch black night, with Gonpo arriving at home, roaring drunk, puking, and being hustled to bed by his kindly wife. When morning comes, Gonpo’s father-in-law Akku, a weathered old shepherd who is the dog’s true owner, confronts him, confiscates Gonpo’s dog money, and sets of on his horse to town to retrieve his animal–whom he raised for 13 years and is attached to. Unable to persuade the dealer, Akku approaches the same amiable sheriff (his son-in-law) to help him reclaim the dog. The sheriff gladly agrees and the dealer, after some light pressure from the sheriff, gives up the animal to Akku.

Up until now the film has set itself up as a comedy, with Akku as a Tibetan Archie Bunker vs. Gonpo as Meathead. The two even sit blankly in front of television together in a scene that’s reminiscent of Archie and Mike (Meathead) in their respective tv chairs. The venal banality of the modern Chinese materialism–even cheesier than our shopping channel, plays out on the TV while the old man silently recites mantra on his prayer beads. In the night Gonpo and Akku scare off thieves who have drugged the dog to unconsciousness. A few days later Akku takes the dog out to a far off field and unchains him, then abandons him. At home he claims to Gonpo and his daughter that he has “liberated” the dog, but one of the neighbors, a shady character who’s had his eye on the mastiff, informs Akku that it has ended up with the Chinese dealer again.

In a subplot, neatly interwoven, Akku, concerned that his daughter and Gonpo have not conceived a child in their three years together, suggests that the couple visit one of the clinics set up by the Chinese that promise to “take care of that kind of thing”. Confronted with revealing intimate details of their lives to a strange doctor, the couple’s shame is palpable, and yet the benefits of science demand their cooperation. The verdict confirms what we have suspected, that Gonpo is “the Problem”. He’s mortified and refuses to admit the truth to the old man, whose opinion of Gonpo is somewhere to the south of ‘meathead’. Gonpo heads off to town leaving his wife and aged father-in-law alone, and does not return. A couple of days later, the sheriff shows up with the dog, but without Gonpo. Apparently he’s been incarcerated for beating up the dog dealer in order to rescue the old dog. This new turn of events melts Akku, who discovers the whole truth about Gonpo’s infertility and reconciles with him.

Old dog and old man reunited, they are relaxing in a field by the side of a road, when two black marketeers ride up, and in a series of three increasingly threatening requests, try to force a deal with Akku, who will not capitulate. The price reaches absurd levels, no doubt a comment on the $1.5 million a Chinese coal baron paid for his mastiff. The men leave, their message clear. Akku can find only one, deeply troubling, but final solution to his growing troubles. Shot in (painfully) real time, he tethers the dogs collar and chain to a fence, then grasps the chain and pulls long and hard, his face a mask of pain, as off camera we hear the sounds of the dog strangulating. In the last long shot of the film, a lone Akku trudges away from camera up a hill, reciting mantra as he goes.

Our expectation of at least a shred of sentimentality is elegantly rebuffed in favor of a tale in which the dog in question has no name, is rarely petted, has ragged unkempt fur and is always chained. Animals have a function in old Tibet; they are in a realm of their own, one of the lower realms with far more suffering than the human realm. There is no mention of karma in this film, because nothing is spelled out that doesn’t have to be. Questions hang unanswered, brushstroked details pass barely noticed, but this slow gentle film delivers a sharp and bitter a portrait of the new Tibet that lingers long after it’s disappeared from its brief festival circuit.



  1. Richard Davis says:

    Now that I know every bloody detail, I still want to see it, thanks in part to the fascinating context you provide. In any case, if all that remains of interest in a movie is ‘what’s going to happen next’, I know it’s time to walk out. If and when the DVD comes out, I will have forgotten everything. So how did you get to see it?

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