"... the man, the dog, the heaven, the earth ..."
3 out of ****
You would think that a movie billed as a Belgian-Mongolian co-production would be unusual, and you would be right. State of Dogs is a peculiar hybrid, a patchwork of documentary and fiction, travelogue and animal fable, mysticism and social realism. It has a story, but is not overly concerned with telling it. It unfolds in fragments and impressions, like a dream, and, like a dream, some of it is memorable, some of it is not.
The story which holds everything together is the tale of Baasar, a dog who dies at the beginning of the film and wanders through landscape and memory as a disembodied spirit, until he is reborn as a human at the end. This synopsis sounds like a cute animal story, but, while State of Dogs is many things, it is not cute.
Baasar dies in the first few minutes, shot by a dog-hunter, along with several other strays. Stray dogs are a problem in Ulan Bator, capital of Mongolia, but most of the population refuses to kill animals, believing it to be an evil act. We see the dog-hunter, a lonely man shunned by others because of his activities, rise in the morning, prepare his rifle, drive out to the edge of the city, and kill some dogs. He loads them into the back of the truck, takes them to the garbage dump, and throws them off. This is all authentic footage: the dog-hunter is real, and so are the dogs he kills. It is definitely not cute.
But this is not a grim study of the solitary life of a dog-hunter. These early episodes are merely a preamble to the disconnected sequences that follow, seemingly random images, sounds, moments of Mongolian life, in the city and on the steppe, in winter and summer.
Baasar's spirit wanders the city. We watch a family honouring its dead in a dry, dusty graveyard. We watch a young woman seated at the back of a bus, staring out the windows on a bright summer day (later we discover that she will give birth to the child which will house Baasar's reincarnated spirit). We see the dreary outskirts of the city, a place of highways, rubbish tips, and squat blocky buildings.
The dog also recalls his past life, when he was owned by a Mongolian nomad on the steppe. In his memories, we see a gathering of herd animals, all bleating and fussing; we see the nomadic people setting up a satellite dish so they can receive Mongolia's one TV channel; we see young men wrestling while an older man sings and plays an odd stringed instrument; there is much more.
All these things seem to have been assembled more or less at the whims of the filmmakers. There was a solar eclipse visible from Northern Mongolia while they were shooting, so, hey, why not include a shot of a solar eclipse, and link it to a myth about a dragon eating the sun? There was a radiantly beautiful young pregnant woman at the hospital while they were casting for a pregnant woman, so, hey, why not include a shot of her in the nude? There was a neat shot that could be achieved by tracking away from a highway along a railroad, to reveal the bleak vista beside it, then turning to look back down the railroad, so, hey, why not include it?
It is revealing that some brief interludes in which a young man recites poems directly to the camera were shot for no other reason than, a) he was the production assistant, b) he was a poet, and, c) they had some film stock left. But I am glad they did use this grab-bag approach. Some of the material, like the poem recited at the beginning, or an amazing demonstration by a female contortionist near the end, would have no place in a more structured format, and it is these throwaway incidents that make this unhurried, low-key film so charming.
But it is more than that: the cinematography and sound design are both terrific, and in a film which has little dialogue, these elements are crucial. During the solar eclipse, the Mongolian people beat metal objects in an attempt to ward off the dragon who is eating the sun. We see the solar eclipse, accompanied by a mighty clashing and banging, and it's a powerfully dramatic moment--quite remarkable given that the film has no dramatic tension to speak of.
To find fault because it is incoherent (it is), because it lacks plot and character (it does), because it repeats itself (ditto), would be petty. This is an extraordinary movie: and so its pleasures are not those of ordinary movies. State of Dogs transports us to another part of the world. It reveals how life is lived in a place which, in all likelihood, most of us will never see for ourselves. It brings us to a land so alien it might as well be another planet, as strange as it is beautiful, as beautiful as it is strange.
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