Even in today's ever-shrinking world, cinema still plays a mighty role in bringing us closer together, introducing us to cultures far away, reminding us all of our collective humanity. How wonderful it is to encounter a film like "The Cave of the Yellow Dog," with its sweet simplicities and its quiet observations on the life of a family of nomads in West Mongolia.
The film comes from writer/director Byambasuren Davaa, whose previous film, "The Story of the Weeping Camel," blended documentary and drama as it followed a nomadic family through a season in the Gobi Desert. Here, she repeats herself in style and subject, while improving on the results: "Yellow Dog" has at its center another real-life family, sometimes acting, often just being themselves. It's a style that's not as complicated as it may appear, as these movies are basically portraits of a culture, snapshots of a way of life most of us will never otherwise encounter.
Six-year-old Nansal is the oldest of three children in the Batchuluun family. She's just returned from school to spend the summer back home, where mother makes cheeses and cures goat meat and father bikes off to a nearby city to sell the family's wares and obtain whatever small necessities will carry them through another year. The outside world (never shown) rarely touches this seemingly distant field; the parents investigate scraps of newspaper to see who won the election (and, later, a car drives by reminding them to vote in the next one), although the politics of the nation do not affect them out here, where there are only goats and wolves and the occasional hunter passer-by.
Indeed, modern life is always encroaching, threatening their peaceful existence by making it harder each year for them to make a living. (In one scene, the father contemplates taking a job at a department store.) Yet modern life is also mostly useless out here - when the mother is given a plastic cup as a gift from the city, she winds up accidentally burning it in the fire. Theirs is a more natural existence based on a connection with nature. There's a key scene near the end when, after packing up to move on for the next season, the parents perform a small ritual thanking the countryside for letting them stay there for the summer.
This connection with nature is important, we learn, as it plays a major factor in their spiritual beliefs. An old woman teaches Nansal that it's easier to catch a grain of rice on the tip of a needle than it is to be reincarnated as a human. The opening scene shows the father burying a dog, snipping off its tail and placing it on its head so it may be reborn as a human. These nomads understand that they must respect nature, for they cannot survive without it, the circle of life cannot continue without it.
Among this quietness, we get something of a storyline: Nansal finds a stray dog and plans to keep it. The father disagrees - the dog is only likely to attract wolves, a risk the family cannot afford. And that's pretty much all there is, the gentle story of a girl and her dog. The closest thing we get to any tension comes near the end, with a bit of suspense built around the genuine dangers of their real world.
What we have in "Yellow Dog" is a series of vignettes that introduce us to the way this family lives their everyday lives. The simplest chores captivate in unexpected ways, and watching the children at work and play brings nothing but smiles. There's an honesty to such scenes as the one in which the daughters stare at the sky, finding shapes in the clouds. Or the one where the children bicker about using a tiny statue of Buddha as a doll, which breaks down thousands of years of adult religion into the simplicity of youth: "No! You can't play with God!"
Complimenting all of this is Davaa's eye for the natural beauty of the Mongolian landscape. There's not a single frame in this film that doesn't overwhelm the viewer with its beauty, be it the lush, endless fields or inside the solitary homes of these locals. The imagery on display here is striking beyond measure.
Indeed, this is a beautiful movie all around, connecting us to a place that, despite its existence in the present, seems locked away in some distant, unreachable past. Here is a world we never would know without the magic of movies. What a magnificent gift to receive.
Video & Audio
As stated, one of the film's best assets is its visuals, and they shine in this anamorphic widescreen (1.78:1) transfer. Colors and textures are rich and black levels are just right.
The Mongolian soundtrack is offered up three ways: Dolby 5.1, Dolby 2.0, and DTS-ES 6.1. The Dolby tracks are both very good - this is a quiet, contemplative film with little need for fancy sound mixing, although the 5.1 track does make nice use of the surround feature when spreading out the sounds of nature.
The DTS-ES track will only play on compatible systems; trying to play the 6.1 track on a system built for 5.1 (as mine is) will leave you without any of the dialogue and only half the sound effects. (Note: the DTS-ES track is mislabeled as 5.1 on the DVD cover.)
A serviceable but unnecessary English dub, for those who prefer such things, is offered in DTS 5.1 (sorry, Dolby fans). Optional English and Spanish subtitles are also provided.
An in-depth, to-the-point interview with Davaa (12:45) answers pretty much everything you'd want to know about the picture. The questions appear in text on screen, suggesting press kit origins. Born in Mongolia but raised in Germany, Davaa speaks in German; English subtitles are not removable. Presented in anamorphic widescreen.
The film's theatrical trailer, shown in non-anamorphic letterbox, is also included.
The bonus material may seem skimpy, but it fits with the movie's minimalist tone. Besides, the movie is worth the price all by itself. Highly Recommended.