Cinema Without Borders: Black Dog—Canine encounters

In this weekly column, the writer explores the non-Indian films that are making the right noise across the globe. This week, we talk about Guan Hu’s Black Dog
Cinema Without Borders: Black Dog—Canine encounters

The kinetic opening sequence sets the tone for Guan Hu’s Black Dog. A bus is traversing a vast, arid vista till a mob of canines appear suddenly out of nowhere, swarms around and topples the vehicle. The setting couldn’t have been more evident and self-explanatory—it’s a world where human’s best friends appear to have taken over the humans themselves. There’s more of the dogs—Guan Hu puts one in every scene and frame of the film. In the hands of a lesser director, it may have ended up seeming like a gimmick but here, it adds potently to the visual dimension of the essential human-canine interface.

Set on the outskirts of China’s Gobi Desert, the film is about a former stunt motorcyclist and local celebrity Lang (Eddie Pang), who returns to his hometown after serving a prison sentence. He joins Uncle Yao’s (Jia Zhangke) local patrol programme to round up and remove stray dogs, in preparation for the 2008 Beijing Olympics. While Lang must start life anew with this new job to keep him afloat, the local gangster wants to avenge his nephew’s death, which he blames Lang for. Meanwhile, in his effort to hunt down a thin black rabies-affected dog, Lang ends up striking an unusual bond with him.

The film won the Un Certain Regard prize at the Cannes Film Festival, where it premiered in May of this year. The dog Xin, who plays the titular character, won the Grand Just prize at the independent Palm Dog awards. At its very basic, Black Dog feels like a journey into the Chinese Wild Wild West, an oddball one at that, with the tussle of two gangs of men at its core and the one between humans and dogs towering over it. It’s a fabulously shot film that derives meaning from the space it is set in. The landscape mirrors Lang’s fevered mind, there's a seething, unexpressed rage and the minimalistic camera manages to capture it effectively, be it on the human face or incipient in nature.

Not just the place, Guan Hu’s evocation of its people and the community is just as effective, particularly in the light of the socio-economic context. It’s about how the ideas of development, progress and modernisation, meant to alleviate our lives, can come at a human cost. There’s a recklessness and disregard for the disempowered that lies at the core of the idea of development. It’s about the abandonment of vast swathes of humanity, ensuring that the goodies pass them by rather than improve their lot. Who is a stray here then? Dogs or humans? Dogs might have taken over human habitation but it’s one where human beings themselves have been turned into strays.

There are individual metaphors at play as well. Lang is a human outcast finding companionship, solidarity, catharsis and atonement in a thin black street dog. A hell of a moving, even though foreseeable story. What’s more, both seem like two sides of the same coin, personifying a mix of aggression and vulnerability. Eddie Pang makes his own silence do all the talking. He is intense and tellingly inscrutable as Lang and couples it wonderfully with his interactions with the dog Xin. Both are a perfect match, made for each other. The presence of iconic director Jia Zhangke is like the proverbial icing on the cake. The film does tend to sag a bit towards the end, could have been more crisp and less sappy and melodramatic. But Guan Hu largely tells it with great control and deftness. Black Dog is riveting in its own unique idiosyncratic way. 

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