The Cave of the Yellow Dog is a difficult movie to classify. Rife with thematic content, it conveys the challenges of a nomadic Mongolian family in an increasingly sedentary world while somehow maintaining the day-in-a-life atmosphere of an educational documentary.
The plot revolves around Nansal, the fearless eldest daughter of the real life Batchuluun family, who is just as comfortable riding a fully grown horse as she is playing pretend with her brother and sister. While tending to the family sheep heard, Nansal discovers a small dog whom she quickly rescues and adopts, much to the chagrin of her father, whose inherent distrust of wolves leaves him disinclined towards his daughter’s new friend. The story-line is one of heartwarming friendship, compassion, and mercy in a harsh and sometimes unforgiving world.
The main plot, however, is only part of what the film offers. While Nansal dominates the screen, her adventures are broken by lengthy shots of her family’s everyday life. The audience sees her father skinning a sheep, her mother preparing milk, and her siblings getting ready for bed. These accurate portrayals of nomadic life on the Steppes blur the line between fiction and documentary, making it difficult to ascertain a the film’s true meaning, its singular “point.” Thematic content is a good place to start:
Urbanization plays an important role throughout the movie. Nansal’s father laments the increasing number of wolves in the area, a direct result of neighboring families abandoning their dogs to move to the city, leaving their hounds to go feral. In the final shot of the film, the Batchuluun family’s wagon train rolls off into the Steppes, but the pastoral image is broken by a car which careens down the road beseeching Mongolians via loudspeaker to vote in the upcoming election.
The implications of a dying rural existence and what that might mean for the Batchuluun family is left ambiguous, and certainly the film is not political in practice; in fact it devotes more time to religion. The Buddhist family discusses reincarnation on a few occasions. Nansal seems the most curious about past lives, seeking information from her parents and a somewhat mysterious elderly woman she encounters during a storm. If viewed as a theme, reincarnation reinforces Nansal and her dog’s friendship through the notion that two souls, even of different species, can find each other connected through disparate memories of other lifetimes. It also adds an air of continuity to the film, a reassurance to the cyclical nature of being, perhaps assuaging the apprehensions of urbanization’s political and social changes.
The themes of urbanization and reincarnation weave into the film’s fabric seamlessly, showing themselves not through purposeful metaphor or stylism, but through everyday life. While urbanization threatens Nansal and her dog’s nascent friendship, their curiously strong bond holds it fast. The themes are not weighed down by overdrawn symbolism and heavy-handed stylism. Rather, the film allows the major motifs to manifest themselves through the earnest and real lives of the Batchuluun family.
The Cave of the Yellow Dog is not quite a documentary and not quite a drama. The glimpse it gives into a real Mongolian nomadic family with the addition of a fictional plot and the spattering of snapshots from everyday life present a film that is as educational as it is heartwarming, as provocative as it is pure. Its candid nature makes it difficult to pin down, but perhaps this honesty is the point. It is as real as any film can be, and such unprecedented things often defy classification.