Old Dog Gazes on Tibet’s Fears for the Future


There’s a fantastic moment in Old Dog where writer-director Pema Tseden lets the camera roll beyond a scene’s pivotal moment, in which elderly Tibetan sheep farmer Akku declines a wealthy Chinese mainland businessman’s offer to buy his old mastiff. The viewer watches as a sheep that’s gotten outside the farm’s fence struggles to return to its flock. There are no edits; we watch in real time as the animal works it out. This lovely, unrushed bit could be interpreted any number of ways in a film about modernity’s erosion of traditional Tibetan culture. Fears about the future also play out in a subplot about a young married couple’s possible infertility. Shot on digital by cinematographer Sonthar Gyal, Old Dog has the look and feel of a documentary, which adds senses of urgency and immediacy to a tale that moves at a languid, but never boring, pace. The film opens with Gonpo (Drolma Kyab) selling his family’s dog. Mastiffs have become hot status symbols on the mainland, leading to a rash of thefts on local farms, and Gonpo hopes to get ahead of the thieves. His outraged father retrieves the animal, setting in motion a drama that, as it unfolds, offers poetic ruminations on cultural erasure. The juxtaposition of gorgeous sweeping landscapes with the harsh developing town center clues you in on where Tseden’s sympathies lie, which is why the breathtaking act that closes the film is so shocking—and oddly fitting.