Home Video Hovel: Old Dog, by Dayne Linford
In response to a breed fad among wealthy Chinese businessmen and their wives in Shanghai, someone has been stealing all the sheepherders’ dogs, leading Gonpo to take his father-in-law’s dog and sell him before somebody else beats him to it. His father-in-law, Akhu Drakpa, goes to retrieve the dog, opening up a festering sore in the family and revealing the cultural devastation of modern day Tibet in the face of Chinese occupation and religious dissolution.
Old Dog, written and directed by Pema Tseden, comes straight out of occupied Tibet, and this is not the mythical landscape of Kundun or a thousand other Hollywood portrayals. Tseden, who has recently established himself as a regional artist, representing an oft-misrepresented country in the rest of the world, finds an eerie, nearly sublime beauty in the desolation of Tibet on screen, seemingly impervious to time and yet crumbling. His film centers on this small family, sheepherders living on the outskirts of a small town, itself on the outskirts of China. Lochey plays the patriarch of the family, Akhu Drakpa, an old man attempting to preserve the way of living he grew up in, before China conquered Tibet and drove out the Dalai Lama. His daughter, Rikso, is played by Tamdrin Tso, and his dissolute son in law completes the small family, played by Drolma Kyab.
Like the country they would be citizens of, this family dwells right on the edge, in a strange state of bored desperation, caught between the whims of the Chinese occupiers, their own dying values and customs, and simple survival. Each character attempts to navigate this abyss in his/her own way, either by joining the Chinese, as another son-in-law did, Dorje, who works as a policeman, by continually drinking and running from his problems, as Gonpo does, by going about her normal business, as Rikso attempts to do, or finally by clinging to the way things have always been done, as Akhu does. Whatever their coping methods, each circles and are subject to the Chinese, as a whole and individually, such as Lao Wang, a local businessman, clearly the economic power, such as it is, of the town. As the film begins, the characters are each stuck in this way of living, even as doubts and despair begin to wear away at them. At heart are two conflicts, one over the Old Dog, who seems to cycle from character to character, released by one, reclaimed by another, attempted stolen by still others, and a deeper conflict, being the lack of children in Gonpo and Rikso’s marriage.
These tensions work at the characters gradually, growing agitations that remain mostly unexpressed, trapped in the uselessness of the expression and the confines of Tibetan culture. Finally, however, they must be expressed, breaking out of the characters in surprising, often small, but devastating ways. Old Dog is very much a character study. It’s about the pressures building in these people’s lives, the subtle gives and tells that slowly break down the dam. It’s a film that builds inexorably to a surprising and powerful conclusion, and everything is pointed towards that conclusion, working to impress its final point. Not just for its niche value as a film from a mostly film-history-less country, Old Dog is thoughtful and provocative art, and very much worth seeing.