“The Cave of the Yellow Dog” – A.J. Hakari

It’s a great time to be a documentary fan. Because of the critical and financial success of Fahrentheit 9/11 and March of the Penguins, more documentaries are getting greater exposure these days. Still, such features haven’t lost their simple, bare-bones charm, as is evident in the case of The Cave of the Yellow Dog. The film’s combination of documentary and staged drama structure may be a bit off-putting, but even with a sparse plot to go on, this movie creates a viewing experience more absorbing than many Hollywood-based ventures.


The Cave of the Yellow Dog tells the story of the Batchuluuns, a nomadic family living in the beautiful Mongolian countryside. Oldest daughter Nansal returns home from school for the summer, quickly getting back into her close-knit clan’s quiet, peaceful existence of herding sheep and goats. While collecting dung one sunny day (stick with me; the story gets better), Nansal comes upon a mischievous little dog hiding in a cave, one that she later names Zochor. Being the curious youngster she is, Nansal brings the canine back to her home, where her siblings fall in love with the spunky pooch. But her parents don’t offer the dog such a warm reception, especially Nansal’s father, who thinks Zochor was raised among wolves and might lead them right to his dwindling flock. As the summer days fly by, time growing closer for the Batchuluuns to move to their next destination, leaving Nansal precious little time to prove that Zochor belongs as part of the family.


Advertised on the back of the DVD as a mix of documentary and drama, this movie never really decides what it is, so viewers may experience an occasional feeling of being manipulated. The Batchuluun family is real, not a cast of actors lounging out in trailers between takes of cheese-making scenes. However, The Cave of the Yellow Dog at times puts its own authenticity under fire, a problem that would’ve been solved had writer/director Byambasuren Davaa made up her mind about exactly what sort of picture she had on her hands.


If one can look past the odd storytelling structure, then The Cave of the Yellow Dog is a very likable film. Not one to depend too much on contrived twists to keep the story moving (until the last 15 minutes, that is), Davaa uses her time to delicately touch upon such heavy themes as the nature of life, death, and reincarnation. Although the movie is more mature in tone than March of the Penguins — a documentary that achieved a balance in depicting cute penguins and showing the dangers they face — it has a way of relating its themes to the little ones without dumbing things down. The cinematography also captures the Mongolian setting in a positively beautiful light.


The Cave of the Yellow Dog won’t enthrall youngsters raised on hyperactive animals throwing out one-liners every five seconds, but it does have an appealing simplicity, merely showing how a family from another culture lives, and there are numerous scenes of the adorable Batchuluun kids playing around and interacting with their new pup which should keep any child occupied. While not packed with singing animals or a thrill a minute, The Cave of the Yellow Dog brings enough charm and important values to the table to enrich viewers of any age.


Rating: ★★★☆


-A.J. Hakari

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