Come Back to the Yurt, Lassie, Honey

Byambasuren Davaa co-directed The Story of the Weeping Camel, an elegant piece of semi-documentary filmmaking that was one of the bigger surprises of 2004. Davaa may not be the first Mongolian filmmaker, but with her new film, The Cave of the Yellow Dog, a solo effort, she becomes the first to inadvertently remake an American chestnut. Think of Yellow Dog as Lassie Come Home with yak milk. The story is absurdly simple -- girl finds dog, dad hates dog, dad wants to leave dog behind when the family ups stakes and moves on, but dog saves youngest child and joins the family.

Davaa is trying hard to do something with the relationship of her characters to the vast, verdant landscapes of Mongolia, something like a John Ford western I suppose, but she allows her penchant for pictorialism to overwhelm any larger thematic concerns. She also seems bent on using film as a way to preserve a dying nomadic culture; the most telling moments in the film revolve around the encroachment of modern conveniences on traditional life, such as the plastic ladle that the husband brings back from a nearby town, riding on his motorcycle (!), or the school uniform that the oldest daughter wears at the film's outset. Clearly the family in Yellow Dog is poised between two cultures, and that would make a very interesting film.

Instead, we get an awkward mixture of ethnographic film and sentimental fiction. It might make more sense to imagine The Cave of the Yellow Dog (and The Story of the Weeping Camel, much of which was also staged apparently) as a throwback to early exotica by directors like Schoedsack and Cooper (Chang, Grass) or Flaherty (Nanook of the North, Man of Aran), well-intentioned attempts to document ways of life that are being superseded by modernity, films that are hopelessly compromised by their makers' penchant for scripted melodrama.

In New York, The Cave of the Yellow Dog is playing at the Angelika Film Center.