The story of Tibetan filmmaker Pema Tseden’s new film, Old Dog, revolves around a nomad family and their aging mastiff, a slow and deliberately moving animal that, despite being distinguished mostly by its heavily matted coat and light panting, is emotionally and economically indispensable to its owner. In many ways, the film itself is much the same: minimalist in its aesthetics and soundtrack, quiet and deliberate in its plot, but nonetheless familiar, endearing, and a vital addition to the small but growing Tibetan cinema.
Old Dog’s eponymous canine is owned by an elderly Tibetan shepherd, Akhu (Lochey). Knowing that nomad mastiffs are prized by Chinese buyers and often stolen to be sold on the black market, Akhu’s ne’er-do-well son, Gonpo (Drolma Kyab), an alcoholic who’s married, but, to his father’s dismay, has yet to produce offspring, attempts to sell the dog to the highest bidder in the nearby township. Akhu insists on retrieving his companion, and once the old dog is back in his possession, he fends off multiple offers to purchase the dog—and attempts to steal it—by unscrupulous neighbors and former friends.
The film’s languid pace is a means of lulling the viewer into a pattern of watching time slip by in the same way the characters do. The camera often rests on a single shot for extended periods while animals wander in and out of view, and when the narrative is actually punctuated by sudden calamitous events (Gonpo arriving home drunk or the dog being stolen from the house), they often occur in the pitch black of nighttime on the Tibetan countryside, rendered abstract and dreamlike. It’s in these structural choices that Tseden reveals a debt to European cinema; the film’s setup, as well as its pacing, cinematography, and its eschewing of a traditional build-up of dramatic plot points, echoes Bicycle Thieves and the cinema of Tarkovsky and the Dardennes.
Instead of a typical three-act structure, Old Dog relies on the increasing burden of its narrative metaphors to steer its story toward a conclusion. The film becomes a portrait of the loss of Tibetan culture, as Akhu stakes his life on protecting his prize working dog from becoming merely a plaything for wealthy Han Chinese. Furthermore, Tibet’s own inability to carry on its culture is harshly symbolized by Gonpo’s infertility and the local thieves who collude with the Chinese dog buyers in hopes of making a quick yuan. But if the metaphors seem obvious, their precise and thoughtful execution amplifies their emotional resonance. Tseden and cinematographer Sonthar Gyal are masters of restraint, filling the film with beautifully simple medium and long shots and a flat, entirely diegetic soundtrack. When the film eventually cuts to a close-up or a POV shot in moments of heightened intensity (Gonpo’s sideways glance at playing children or Akhu’s strained demeanor in the film’s concluding moments), these images carry an impossible emotional weight that drives the tragedy of Tibet’s loss of selfhood home like a kick in the gut.