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Chinese Reality #13: Old Dog

To commemorate the film series Chinese Realities / Documentary Visions at The Museum of Modern Art (May 8-June 1), each day this month this blog will publish a brief primer on one of the 28 films selected in the series.

Today’s film:


Old Dog (dir. Pema Tseden)

2011. China. Directed by Pema Tseden. With Yanbum Gyal, Droluma Kyab, Lochey.

A young Tibetan decides to sell his family’s nomad mastiff, an exotic dog that fetches a fortune from wealthy Chinese. His aging father opposes him, leading to a series of tragicomic events that threaten to tear the family apart. Pema Tseden is the leading filmmaker of a newly emerging Tibetan cinema, and the first director in China to film his movies entirely in the Tibetan language. His third feature,Old Dog employs an observational documentary approach that soberly depicts the erosion of Tibetan culture under the pressures of contemporary society.

Excerpts from select reviews and writings:

And so the Tibetan new-wave cometh. Though merely a tiny ripple for now (consisting of about two filmmakers), the homelanders are showing a different side of their environment, one overlooked by features such as “Seven Years in Tibet” or the blockbusters currently burning the region’s box office. Pema Tseden’s “Old Dog” doesn’t include any of the flourishing beauty that the aforementioned Brad Pitt vehicle does, instead opting to showcase a dismal, despairing area where the cities look like post-apocalyptic wastelands and the countrysides don’t seem to contain a speck of life. While his outlook on things is unrelentingly critical, he’s not being negative for the sake of it — there’s some true passion behind this work, and Tseden is a director with plenty to say on all topics, ranging from the younger generation’s lack of connection to their heritage to the troubling relationship between Tibet and China

Christopher Bell, Indiewire

“Old Dog” as a whole is characterised by the same dogged determination shown by its elderly protagonist, being a film whose naturalistic style masks a powerful use of metaphor. A beautiful, highly effective and moving statement about a culture in danger of disappearing, it treats its subject matter with thoughtful even handedness, never offering any easy answers or even much hope for the future. Tseden is certainly a talent to watch out for, and the film is a fine example of the richness which Tibetan cinema has to offer.

James MudgeBeyond Hollywood

Lurking in the background – and driving the story – is the shadowy presence of immense Chinese wealth made real and present by the petty thieves who cater to Chinese interests by stealing dogs. This issue is still current with 2010 seeing a Qingdao buyer splash out £1.5 million for a droopy-eyed fur-covered Mastiff who looked positively uncomfortable in his bedraggled red coat. In 2009 another Chinese millionaire made headlines when she welcomed Yangtze No. 2, a Tibetan Mastiff apparently worth £350,000 to her home in Xi’an with a convoy of 30 back Mercedes and the ubiquitous red banners used in Chinese celebrations.

Stephanie Chang, The Culture Trip

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.

Rita Valencia, Times Quotidian

“I tried to show people the traditional way of life and the social change taking place. For instance, in this film, there’s a story inside a story — that young couple couldn’t have a child. Through that kind of situation I’m trying to tell people what is current in Tibet. Things are changing,” Tseden noted. “The main point of the film is not just to tell a story, but also to demonstrate or document small details that make up Tibet.”

Pema Tseden, interviewed by Christopher Bell, Indiewire

People often confuse Tseden’s films for documentaries, asking how a family is doing now, or even expressing the desire to donate. Recounting this, Tseden laughed and stated, “The main difference between documentary versus narrative films is in attitude.” He does not consider his own art to be documentary, believing that “the minute you bring a camera to a person’s real life, they cannot maintain their reality. But what you’ve captured is also truth or reality.”

From the opening sequence of Gonpos’ sojourn into town, we encounter an aggressive, busy soundscape. The clink and roar of construction; the shrill call of pop music blaring from stores; the hum of a scooter’s motor; the bleating of goats; wind and insects; even the screechy blather of a Mandarin-language TV station in the family’s otherwise tranquil mountain home. Tseden is frugal with the movement of his camera and subjects and tends to hold a shot long after the frame is vacated by humans and animals, but the cacophony of sounds often overwhelms an abandoned landscape. In the film’s climactic moment, a prolonged event of mercy and brutality, the audience can look away if they choose, but the choked noises of this violent act are impossible to ignore.

Maya E. Rudolph, dGenerate

Even as they call for Tibetan independence, many Westerners romanticize the region, viewing it through a framework of Orientalist exotica. On the other hand, the Chinese government continues to rule it with a heavy hand. This places Tibetan director Pema Tseden in a difficult position but he’s carved out a slot in East Asian cinema with panache. In an interview with the Trace Foundation, a New York based non-profit organisation promoting Tibetan culture, he states: “My friends and I had all seen many movies on Tibetan culture. However, most of these movies don’t portray the way of life and value systems properly.” Tseden attended the Beijing Film Academy, from which he graduated in 2004 after making several shorts, and has pursued a parallel career as an author. The first director ever to emerge from Tibet, he’s devoted himself to making accurate films about the country, shot with local crews, using Tibetan dialogue and casting nonprofessional actors.

Steven Erickson, Sight & Sound, June 2013

Given Pema Tseden’s extremely complicated position as a Tibetan in China, and the necessity of having his films pass stringent Chinese censorship, his ability to speak eloquently of individual despair and the emergency of cultural obliteration is masterful; his ability to do this in films of such eloquent, quiet beauty is nothing short of astonishing.

Shelly Kraicer, Cinema Scope


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