Befriending the Black Dog of fate

时间:2024年06月26日 来源:China Daily 作者:Xu Fan

  Black Dog, which won Un Certain Regard's top award at this year's Cannes Film Festival, centers on the special bond between Erlang, a man released from a 10-year sentence on parole, played by actor Eddie Peng, and the titular canine. [Photo provided to China Daily] 

  Redemptory tale is gritty slice of life filmed in postindustrial Northwest, Xu Fan reports. 

  As A-list actor Eddie Peng sauntered through the streets of Cannes with the dog he adopted following the global premiere of his latest film Black Dog at the 77th Cannes Film Festival, attendees were so captivated by the four-legged celebrity, they barely spared a glance for the human star.

  "People came up to me and crouched down, asking if they could pet it," Peng tells China Daily shortly before a promotional event in Beijing on June 12, three days ahead of the movie's Chinese mainland release.

  As one of the most acclaimed Chinese-language films at the prestigious international festival, Black Dog clinched the top prize in Un Certain Regard, a category that celebrates unique style and unconventional narratives.

  Xiaoxin, the canine star playing the enigmatic black dog in the film, basked in its own glory after winning the Palm Dog Award, an annual accolade given by the festival's international film critics to the best canine or group of canine performers.

  The film is a step out of the comfort zone for director Guan Hu, who is known for blockbusters like the acclaimed Mr Six. Black Dog also pays homage to his late father.

  Emerging as a prominent figure among China's "sixth-generation directors", Guan's first film Dirt came out in 1994. Since then, the 55-year-old filmmaker has steadily ascended into the echelons of top-tier directors through a string of successful TV dramas and films, including the war epic The Eight Hundred, the highest-grossing blockbuster of 2020.

  Viewed by some critics as one of Guan's most personal and experimental films, Black Dog is set in a dilapidated town in northwestern China.

  It follows Peng's character, a former local celebrity named Lang Yonghui, who once had a band and excelled at motorcycle stunts, on his return to hometown on parole after completing a 10-year prison term. Compelled to earn a living, Lang, who is also known as Erlang, reluctantly takes a job on a team assigned to round up stray dogs. This effort is part of the town's initiative to clean up its streets and attract investors for new factory developments.

  In a twist of fate, the isolated Erlang, who rarely speaks following his stint in prison, bonds with one of the strays, a black dog initially seen as a major problem by the dogcatchers, who suspect it of having rabies.

  Through a series of harsh experiences, from evading the angry relatives of a person whose death has been blamed on Erlang, to surviving a cold night huddling together to keep warm after a car accident, the dog gradually becomes a companion as Erlang embarks on a journey that ultimately leads to him finding redemption through his connection with the stray.

  Guan co-wrote the script with screenwriters Ge Rui and Wu Bing, and says that he drew inspiration from moments in his work and life.

  During the course of shooting earlier films, Guan visited a number of small towns in Northwest China. He discovered that while these towns were once prosperous, boasting well-developed community facilities, such as hospitals and schools that were a legacy of China's industrial expansion in the 1950s and '60s, they now lay empty or nearly abandoned due to the decline of factory operations, and that many of their former inhabitants had relocated or departed. This contrast between past and present created a sense of desolation, which sparked Guan's creative fire.

  Guan also introduces his love for dogs — the director has five — and memories of his father's final years before passing away at the age of 101, to explore themes including the relationship between animals and humans, as well as between fathers and sons.

  With a cast and crew that included more than 100 dogs and over 20 professionals recruited to take care of them in a nearly 2,000-square-meter shelter, the film was shot in desert areas in Gansu province between late 2021 and early 2022, according to the movie's executive producer, Liang Jing.

  She says that Guan found dog trainers during a visit to the set of Hachiko, a film starring Feng Xiaogang that is based on the real life Japanese story of the devotion of a dog for its owner.

  Peng found himself nearly going mad after the famously demanding director required him to reshoot a scene where his character chases a dog more than 50 times.

  "At first, I was able to remember how I had envisaged playing the scene. However, after repeating it so many times, I became disoriented and desperately wished to finish. I could feel my scalp burning in the scorching sun," the actor recalls.

  Describing animals as some of the most challenging subjects to film, Guan says that instead of finding it difficult, he enjoyed the process.

  "I've found that dogs share similarities with human beings. You can communicate with them. In the film, I see the black dog as not just an animal but as an individual like Erlang, fighting both loneliness and prejudice," he says.

  The film's other characters also shine. Tong Liya plays a circus dancer who shares a soulful bond with Erlang, while acclaimed director Jia Zhangke plays the leader of the dogcatchers.

  Guan speaks of his enduring acquaintance with Jia, the Shanxi-born director who is celebrated for his poignant portrayals of grassroots individuals in his province. Despite knowing little about the film, Jia promptly accepted the role, and even suggested that he grow a beard to better embody the character's gritty essence.

  "Jia has a unique presence and seamlessly blends in among the group of rugged residents in the small northwestern town," Guan says.

  During one scene where the dogcatchers meet to enjoy grilled lamb skewers, Jia was so deep in character as he attended to the skewers that, for a moment, Guan almost didn't recognize him as he observed the scene from behind the monitor.

  Liang, who is Guan's wife and collaborator of many years, says that the film makes heavy use of long shots instead of close-ups to lend a restrained approach to its visual language and avoid excessive sentimentality.

  "This reflects the director's mature storytelling technique, as he is able to tell a story from a more composed perspective," Liang adds.

  Guan says that he wants the audience to feel as though they are quietly observing the real-life experiences of the protagonist and to connect with universal regrets, such as missed romantic opportunities or unresolved family tensions.

  "I believe that allowing the audience to immerse themselves in a different life through the screen is the most significant gift that film bestows upon us," Guan says.