In the derelict, scraggly city in northwest China where Guan Hu’s Black Dog is set, human life has all but disappeared and canines have replaced their masters. The year is 2008, a few weeks before the kick-off to the Beijing Summer Olympics, but the capital feels so distant in time and space that when a mural honoring the event pops up, the paint is so sun-bleached you’d be forgiven for thinking the Games were over by a few decades. Oil was tucked deep under the nearby hills until the reserves dried up and workers left––one of many migration waves that turned this unnamed corner at the edge of the Gobi Desert into an arid ghost town presided by the pets its former residents left behind. Dogs are everywhere you look; from the barren expanses that ring the city down to its maze of abandoned buildings, they roam this place as silent and sinister sentinels, a vision closer to a post-apocalyptic nightmare like Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later than a fantasia à la Wes Anderson’s Isle of Dogs

It is a testament to Hu’s mastery of craft that the most heartbreaking thing about his Black Dog isn’t the human-animal relationship at its center, but that desolate backdrop, a town that, for all intents and purposes, has died long, long before a new series of demolitions will wipe away whatever’s left of it to make room for new factories. So much so that when Lang returns, the place looks no more alive than the desert around it. Played by Eddie Peng as a taciturn cipher, the young man is fresh out of prison and comes back to his native turf to find it frozen in a purgatorial limbo. His mother’s long since died; his dad’s an alcoholic who left the family home to relocate to the local zoo and feed the last surviving animals in-between benders. There’s no one to celebrate Lang’s homecoming, save a few thugs working for one “Butcher” Hu, a local gangster and snake-venom vendor whose nephew Lang allegedly killed, and for whose death he was sent to jail. Lang’s just finished his sentence; Hu’s thirst for vengeance remains unquenched. 

So far, so predictable. But Black Dog doesn’t traffic in twists or big thrills. Written by Hu and longtime collaborator Rui Ge, it embraces the same premise of countless a noir before it: a lone drifter comes home to start afresh, only to face the ghosts of his troubled past. What’s sensational about Hu’s latest is the way it undercuts that dread to land on an engrossing note that rings wholly, convincingly earned. The one surprise to its otherwise formulaic genre trappings is that Lang doesn’t share his path to redemption with a femme fatale but a skinny black hound. That’s the dog of the title, a mongrel authorities believe to be riddled with rabies and on which they’ve put a bounty. Lang needs the cash, so he joins a special task force led by Uncle Yao (played by none other than Jia Zhangke) instructed to round up and dispose of all the unregistered canines. Except the gig proves far too brutal, something the film thankfully conveys through sounds more than visuals, with Gao Weizhe’s widescreen camerawork panning from the most barbaric moments, instead evoking them via a litany of whimpers and iron bars caroming off empty buildings. Lang keeps secretly sabotaging the squad’s efforts until the team manages to capture the town’s most wanted pet, and a series of cataclysmic events leave young man and dog to fend for themselves. 

Bitten by his prized prisoner and forced to spend a week quarantined with him, Lang doesn’t catch rabies but a wary form of affection for the new, four-legged housemate. But even here, in a human-animal friendship other films would have unfolded through a series of clichéd and soppy moments, Black Dog surprises for its restraint. To be clear: it’s not that there are no cutesy beats, only that the story’s inherent sentimentality is reined in by a script that doesn’t wallow in them, and by two outstanding lead performances that lend it an emotional authenticity. I mean Peng’s and the mutt’s––a greyhound named Xiao Xin, for the record, whom its human co-star adopted at the end of the shoot and traveled to Cannes with, where the film premiered and won the Un Certain Regard sidebar. 

I never know where to begin when assessing a dog’s acting, largely because I fear that anything I might have to say will land as more or less trite variations of Good Boy / Very Good Boy appraisals. But Xiao Xin’s work here (as Messi’s own in Anatomy of a Fall last year) is just too cardinal to the film’s success to be dismissed with shallow descriptors. His turn, like Peng’s, shifts from abject fear to guarded trust; even at its strongest, the bond between animal and man remains one between two wildly different creatures, and Hu makes no pretense of understanding the stray any better than Lang might. If Black Dog doesn’t embrace its hero’s POV, working largely via static long shots that dwarf all living beings under the immensity of the Gobi Desert and the spectrally empty city that lies at its feet, it still very much behaves like him, crouching in fear as it tests the nature of this unlikely inter-species alliance.

I can’t help but find it fascinating how Hu should pivot from a couple of largely jingoistic blockbusters celebrating the military prowess and resilience of the Chinese people (The Sacrifice and The Eight Hundred, both 2020) to the tale of a laconic bloke and its furry bestie. But there is something about Gao’s cinematography––the way he captures these vast expanses of land, the mountains rearing up behind them like dark scars, and these solitary wanderers traveling across them like insects––that lends this small-scale portrait a humbling majesty of its own. Black Dog might not offer much in the way of social critique, and its musings on the country’s bid for progress aren’t more perceptive than what you might find in the cinema of Jia Zhangke, to name another Sixth Generation peer of Hu’s. But the sense of catharsis the film musters in its closing shots is nothing short of remarkable. It’s a small wonder that Black Dog, drenched in sorrow as it is, can wrap with a coda this invigorating. It’s a much bigger one that it does so without ever coming across as manipulative. 

Black Dog premiered at the 2024 Cannes Film Festival

Grade: B+

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