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Cannes 2024: Two Strays Form Heartwarming Bond in ‘Black Dog’

Black Dog and Lang
The Seventh Art Pictures

Opening with stunning shots of the Gobi Desert in a calm, peaceful state before a herd of stray dogs emerge, charging with enough force to overturn a bus, one might expect Guan Hu’s Black Dog to be some kind of man-versus-beast narrative set against the backdrop of the natural landscape. Yet, it is far from it, as after this surreal opening sequence, Black Dog takes on much lower key note: the “problem” of the herds of strays is established, but what emerges from it is not just conflict or animosity, but ultimately becomes a story of connection and redemption through the bond between dog and man.


“Dog is man’s best friend” is a tried and tested axiom and storytelling trope, but it’s all about the execution which makes it engaging. For the “man” side of the equation, we get Lang (Eddie Peng), a stoic and cynical ex-con who has returned to his hometown after a stint in prison for manslaughter. Lang is a man of few words and is played with wonderful restraint by the Taiwanese actor Peng, who, with very scarce dialogue, evokes the troubled history of this man and his aimless present. As he deals with a distant father, the vengeance-seeking family members of his victim, and his general reputation as a ne’er-do-well in society, it appears that these things don’t seem to take its toll on him as he listlessly goes about the motions of life without any passion. 


Enter the “dog” side of the formula — the titular canine who becomes drawn to Lang in an amusing sequence when the latter is urinating. They are brought together again when Lang is enlisted for a dog-patrol team by the amiable Uncle Yao (played by award-winning director Jia Zhangke, making a strong impression in a small role). As Lang begins to open up to “Black Dog,” we learn more about him and his vulnerabilities as a man adrift in an ever-changing, often unsparing world, someone who has lost so much time through the mistakes he has made.


By setting the story in the distinct period of 2008 China, directly in the lead up to the Olympics, Guan presents the nation in a state of peak economic and social change, which is flourishing in many ways, but also presents how this rapid change leaves parts of the country falling by the wayside. Lang’s hometown is one of them, and Guan evokes a vivid sense of place and time to this setting. He emphasises the empty, derelict spaces and old-fashioned ways and tempo of living, from the houses and restaurants to the streets and, most notably, the derelict, isolated zoo where Lang’s father works. There’s an overwhelming sense of quietude to the town, a certain unease over its place in a changing world, which leads some inhabitants to try to find a solution by getting rid of stray dogs. 


Yet Guan embraces the beauty of framing these strays against the town, crafting some stunning shots of the dogs in the empty streets of the city, showing just how much personality they give the town even if they can be a bit of nuisance at times. Gao Weizhe’s cinematography is a highlight, capturing these images with a perfect blend of rugged, beautiful realism with edges of a more mystical quantity, evoking the timelessness of the town and the wilderness of the desert where Lang hits the road on journeys with his motorcycle, Black Dog in tow. 


As we follow the journey of Lang and Black Dog, the film embraces its purpose alongside them, reigniting itself with energy in every scene of them bonding together. Peng has spoken of the challenges of working with dogs predominantly, noting that he had to learn to lean on natural instincts and give himself to his canine co-stars to foster the right dynamic. Played by dog performer Xin, the leading dog is a remarkable onscreen performer, moving around with much personality and physicality, and creating a fantastic dynamic with Peng’s near-silent performance. It doesn’t take much guesswork to figure out how the two leads, who get trapped in a car overnight and quarantined together for a week as a precaution against rabies, will bond over their less-than-ideal circumstances, but it’s wonderful to watch this bond develop in the most heartwarming of ways. 


The film also delves into various other connected subplots to Lang, some of which work better than others. His burgeoning connection to Grape (Tong Liya), a belly dancer from a circus troupe, is rather sweet and affecting, while his relationship with his estranged father feels a bit underwritten despite significant screen time dedicated to it. Ultimately, this film revolves all around the man and the dog, and, in that regard, it is a resounding, crowd-pleasing success.

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