Eddie Peng is a directionless ex-con who teams up with an unwanted mutt in Guan Hu’s uplifting drama

Black Dog

Source: Cannes Film Festival

‘Black Dog’

Dir: Guan Hu. China. 2024. 110mins

A warm-hearted crowd pleaser about an ex-convict and the canine he befriends, the latest picture from prolific Chinese director Guan Hu takes the man and dog genre and sandblasts away some, but not all, of the sentimentality which is inevitable in a movie in which a lost soul is redeemed by his bond with a trusty mutt. It  is a marked change of gear for Guan Hu, who most recently scored a box office-igniting 2020 double whammy with the ambitious war epic The Eight Hundred, which was the second highest grossing film of the year, plus the Korean War drama The Sacrifice, which was also a notable domestic success. 

An almost Lassie-esque element of fantasy canine resourcefulness

Black Dog tones down the thunderous spectacle of those previous pictures, aiming instead for a tricky blend of abrasive realism – director Jia Zhangke is an influence, and he’s also rather good in a supporting acting role – and an almost Lassie-esque element of fantasy canine resourcefulness. (The eponymous Black Dog may not rescue any children from wells, but he does raise the alarm when Butcher Hu, the snake farmer and owner of the local barbecue outlet, delivers a savage beating to someone.) Plotwise, the film is a little ragged, particularly in the third act, but star Eddie Peng is impressive; his bankable name and the winning chemistry with his four-legged co-star should draw audiences in China and elsewhere.

Recently released from a stint in prison, taciturn Lang (Peng) has walled off the soft parts of his soul as a form of self-preservation. He returns to his hometown, a flyblown outpost on the fringes of the Gobi Desert, Northwest China, where he previously enjoyed a degree of celebrity as a stunt motorcyclist and musician. Struggling to find his feet, he takes a job aiding the pre-2008 Olympics clear-out of the stray dogs which have invaded the town. It’s through this gig that he encounters the Black Dog, a rangy whippet-like hound that is rumoured to have rabies. But after a rocky first meeting which leaves Lang bleeding from the buttock, the man and dog recognise something in each other. 

The film makes the most of its blighted Gobi desert backdrop. Cinematographer Gai Weizhe shoots in widescreen, the better to capture the intimidatingly bleak lunar expanses of rock and sand. The town is on borrowed time, with much of it scheduled for demolition and the rest of it strafed into partial dereliction by unforgiving desert winds. Lang returns to find that his father has taken up residence in the world’s most depressing zoo – more a prison camp for animals than a tourist attraction – and that he is slowly and determinedly drinking himself to death. It takes a while for Lang to bring himself to visit the old man. He has little to say to him. But then, he has little to say to anyone – he has barely more than a dozen lines of dialogue in the whole film. But Peng’s physically expressive performance makes up for his character’s taciturn nature.

The film is, at its heart, a tale of redemption of a man who finds himself on the periphery of society, and an animal who finds himself feared and misunderstood (and those roles are interchangeable). But it’s also a story that draws from Chinese mythology and the legend of the Erlang deity (the inspiration for Lang’s name), a figure who is depicted with a thin dog at his side keeping him company on his lonely journey.

A prominently displayed message at the close of the picture assures us that not only were no animals harmed, trainers supervised the non-human actors – although Lang attempts to feed Black Dog grapes at one point, which raises a few animal husbandry red flags. But for the most part, the canine cast members are excellent. A special mention must go to a small fluffy lad shamelessly hamming in a key scene: he’s grieving the loss of his owner and he’s all whined out, throwing his head back in a silent howl of despair. Thank you, Daniel Dog Lewis. But the real star is Black Dog himself, who navigates the arc from misunderstood arse-biter to brave and noble hound with real aplomb.

Production company: The Seventh Art Pictures

International sales: Playtime joris@playtime.group

Producer: Liang Jing

Screenplay: Guan Hu, Ge Rui, Wu Bing

Cinematography: Gao Weizhe

Production design: Huo Tingxiao

Editing: Matthieu Laclau, He Yongyi

Music: Breton Vivian

Main cast: Eddie Peng, Jia Zhangke, Tong Liya, Zhang Yi, Zhou You