The Cave of the Yellow Dog

With elegant simplicity, writer-director Byambasuren Davaa captures both the routine and the divine in her tale of a nomadic Mongolian family dealing with changing times. While demonstrating the everyday cycle of life in the Altai region of northwest Mongolia, she shows the interdependence of the family and how their Buddhist beliefs infuse the commonplace with reverence.

The Mongolian-born Davaa, who now lives in Germany, has made a lovely film with a structure that's comfortably Western, but without the moralizing and grand gestures that are all too prevalent in American movies. Everything is kept to a very human scale, and events unfold organically. The familial structure here is so solid because she cast an actual nomad family: Their natural intimacy grounds the film and demonstrates how this traditional way of life can survive despite the lure of an urban existence.

The Cave of the Yellow Dog opens as eldest daughter Nansaa (Nansal Batchuluun) arrives home from boarding school. While her father (Urjindorj Batchuluun) admires her workbooks, her mother (Buyandulam Batchuluun) replaces the stiff black-and-white school uniform with a soft, colorful deel. While marveling at how much she's grown, her parents begin the discussion of how to best help their bright, imaginative daughter, who is now as comfortable in the city as on the steppe.

Six-year-old Nansaa is a wonderfully complex kid, a mixture of intelligence and impulsiveness, charting her own course while embracing the warmth and closeness of the family yurt. Sent out one day to gather dung — in an age-old recycling practice, it's used to fuel fires — she discovers a small dog hiding in a cave, and swiftly adopts it. White with black splotches, the dog is dubbed Zochor (Spot) and charms everyone in the family except her father.

Conflict over Zochor's place with the family drives the film, as the father stubbornly distrusts this dog, who he believes has been living with the wolves that increasingly attack their livestock. Meanwhile, an old woman tells Nansaa the story of the yellow dog, which brings home the concept of reincarnation.

Davaa (The Story of the Weeping Camel) easily blends philosophical musings with the practical — the intricate dismantling of the circular yurt is a marvel of efficiency and cooperation — and has captured a diminishing way of life with grace, compassion and humor. There are no tears or nostalgia: these modern nomads know what they're missing, and fully appreciate what they have.

Showing at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit) at 7 p.m., Friday and Saturday, Nov. 23-24 and 4 & 7 p.m. on Sunday, Nov. 25. Call 313-833-3237.

Serena Donadoni writes about film and culture for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].

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