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Yurt on the range

The Cave of the Yellow Dog is familiar and exotic

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Like a Walt Disney yarn boiled down to its essence, Byambasuren Davaa's The Cave of the Yellow Dog concerns that most basic of stories: a child, a beloved pet and the parent who wants to see them separated.

It's a story that worked for such classic Americana as The Yearling and Old Yeller. And it works for this Mongolian drama, too, a film steeped in both the familiar and the exotic.

Relying on the kiddie-drama staples of adorable moppets with wind-chapped apple cheeks, these moppets also utter lines no Disney scamp has ever spoken, such as: "Mom, do you remember your previous lives?" or "Mom, can I have some dung?" uttered by a child begging for some chunks of the family fuel supply of petrified sheep poop to play with.

In matters of the exotic, the vast countryside where 6-year-old heroine Nansaa (Nansal Batchuluun) lives with her family is indescribably beautiful. Even vistas as majestic as John Ford's Monument Valley in countless Westerns, or the Alps in The Sound of Music, cannot compare with this Shangri-la of natural bounty, where a green valley as vivid as Astroturf meets a sky of startling blue.

Children of nature Nansaa and her two younger siblings drink sheep's milk from deep bowls under the intense blue sky and play at their busy mother's (Buyandulam D. Batchuluun) feet as she goes about her endless chores making cheese, stirring enormous vats of steaming milk or mending her children's clothing. Their existence initially seems idyllic, close to nature, free of worry and the kind of competition, social striving and anxiety that characterize contemporary life.

But there are dark forces brewing amid the family's bucolic tranquility. Marauding wolves have killed two of the family's sheep. The family is dependent on the sheep for its livelihood, and so the loss of even a portion of the flock bodes badly for the family. Father (Urjindorj Batchuluun) is unsettled by what a predatory wolf might mean to their future -- he discusses with a pair of fellow shepherds the mass exodus of their neighbors for the city, where there are jobs and more reliable means of survival.

Intensifying his worries is willful Nansaa, who has also recently brought home an adorable stray dog, which, by the laws of global childhood, she names "Spot." But her father fears the dog is contaminated by his time spent living in the caves where the wolves are known to dwell.

Much of the film's power comes from the observational, naturalistic quality of director Davaa's filmmaking. The film is Davaa's follow-up to The Story of the Weeping Camel and centers on the Altai region of Mongolia, home of the director's mother and grandmother, making it feel like an homage to the unique folkways and traditions of Mongolia's nomadic culture.

The battle over keeping this animal interloper around is utterly familiar, but nearly everything else about The Cave of the Yellow Dog feels extraordinary. One of Nansaa's obsessions is reincarnation, the kind of inquiry about the nature of life and death and things beyond her immediate experience, familiar to anyone with small children.

In matters of the afterlife, but in other regards, too, there is a lovely circularity to the lives of these Mongolian peasants who make their living, but also feed themselves, from the flock they tend. Nothing is wasted nor taken for granted -- as when, after dismantling their yurt to move on to greener pastures, the father and mother offer a prayer to the valley for hosting their stay.

The family seems to recognize its own fragile presence in the vastness of the universe and thus treats it with the proper respect. Or, as the mother sings to her children, "We love you, Mother Earth. Only you have eternal life."

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