For weeks after watching The Cave of the Yellow Dog, my daughter and I would play “Cave of the Yellow Dog”, our own make-believe game based on the movie. She would pretend to be Nansal, the plucky young protagonist of the Mongolian/German film who, against her father’s wishes, really wants to keep a stray puppy. “But Papa,” she would say, “I really want to keep the dog. “Sorry Nansal,” I would play along. “Where there are dogs, there are wolves. Wolves will eat the sheep.”
This quietly beautiful film by Byambasuren Davaa portrays daily life for Nansal, her younger siblings, and their parents - also a family in real life. Nansal finds a black and white dog in a cave and names it Zochor (Spot). Her father forbids Nansal from keeping the dog, warning that wolves may follow and attack the family’s livestock. In an effort to find Zochor after he has run away, Nansal becomes lost and takes refuge with an old woman who tells her the story of the Cave of the Yellow Dog.
Many elements of this film on the edge of documentary work together to make it special. There is the realistic representation of kids being kids. Real life siblings Nansal, Nansalmaa, and Babbayar Batchuluun and their parents are shown, well, being a normal family. Then there's the sheer pluck of Nansal who, accompanied only by her dog Zochor, heads off on horseback to graze the sheep. Yet when Zochor runs off and Nansal herself becomes lost trying to find the dog, the movie never loses its calm feel. Finally, a subtle yet important theme of the film is contemporary Mongolia's creep towards consumer culture. Davaa explores this theme more overtly in The Story of the Weeping Camel.
Set under blue skies with a backdrop of mountains and windblown steppes, The Cave of the Yellow Dog is captivating for adults and children. The dialogue is Mongolian with a variety of languages available as subtitles if you and your kids don’t understand Mongolian. The great thing about foreign language films with subtitles is that they allow you - force you, really - to read the movie aloud to your pre-reading children when you choose to watch with them. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that kids under two years old not watch any TV and that those older than two watch no more than one to two hours a day of quality programming. This programming would be a great choice. I think reading the film aloud to my own pre-reading daughter may be what opened the movie up for make-believe games long after viewing.
The Cave of the Yellow Dog