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Black Dog Film Review: Sympathy for the Canine

Black Dog is a western disguised as a drama – the story of a man who returns to a desolate land and finds his humanity again after bonding with a very special dog.


Director: Guan Hu
Genre: Drama, Western
Run Time: 106′
World Premiere: May 28, 2024 at the Cannes Film Festival
Release Date: TBA

Guan Hu’s Black Dog (Gou Zhen) begins with a long shot of the Gobi desert, in Northwest China. As the camera pans to show us the vastness of this landscape, with dark hills overlooking the arid, dry wasteland where the film takes place, a blue van comes into view, headed for the town. Right away, a pack of stray dogs appears, running toward the van and causing it to overturn.

Soon, we meet the film’s protagonist, Lang (Eddie Peng), who was in the van, returning home on parole after having spent some time in prison. “You got out of jail early,” his neighbor tells him, when he reaches his family home and learns that his alcoholic dad now lives at the zoo, where he’s drinking himself to death. “Did you escape?,” the neighbor asks. But Lang doesn’t speak – not because he can’t, but because he chooses not to. As we see our protagonist reacquaint himself with his old house and town, we learn a few things about him. He used to be a celebrity, but he played a part in the murder of local gangster/snake venom dealer Butcher Hu’s (Hu Ziaoguang) nephew, which led to his incarceration.

We also learn that the 2008 Beijing Olympics are about to take place, and the town is undergoing some renovations in the run-up to the event – which means that buildings will first have to be demolished. Because of this, most residents have already moved elsewhere, and many left their dogs behind. But this led to a dog problem in the town, as all attempts to drive them to the outskirts failed: there’s just too many of them. On top of this, everyone’s on the lookout for a thin black dog who is believed to be rabid, and residents are so scared that there’s a bounty on the animal’s head. And who, if not our brooding, solitary hero, should be the one to find him?

Lang initially sets out to capture the animal, but the titular Black Dog (a Jack Russell-greyhound cross named Xin and the undeniable star of the movie, despite him not winning this year’s Palm Dog in Cannes) gets the better of him. As his hunt for the animal continues, his Uncle Yao (played by Caught by the Tides director Jia Zhangke) has him join a team of people whose job is to capture all unregistered dogs, as part of the town’s “stray dog clean operation”. But not everyone can afford to have their pets officially registered, and when Lang and the team are instructed to take them too, he starts to question the morality of it all.

It also helps that a relationship has begun to develop between Lang and Black Dog, who soon become each other’s family. But with the town’s impending destruction, the threat of Butcher Hu’s revenge scheme, and the possibility of Black Dog actually being rabid, will our heroes survive?

Black Dog: Clip of the opening scene (Memento Distribution / Cannes Film Festival)

Black Dog is a western in every respect. Our solitary, silent hero is a man of deep principles, who lives in a dying town and who abides by a moral code that dictates his every action. He’s an inherently good person who only trusts a select few – which, in this film, happens to be a dog. And it’s that dog who, in a town where he’s not welcome, becomes his only friend and an anchor for his humanity.

Guan Hu’s film, which won the Un Certain Regard award at the 2024 Cannes Film Festival, is a mesmerizing, enthralling watch that fully immerses us in a setting that immediately becomes familiar, as we experience it in real time, just as Lang does. DOP Weizhe Gao’s (My People, My Country) choice to shoot the movie in widescreen pays off, conveying the vastness of its stunning landscape and working hand in hand with the film’s haunting score (Breton Vivian, of Yellowstone) to make for a highly immersive experience.

Lang’s return to his hometown and his bonding with Black Dog in a semi-apocalyptic scenario constitutes the core of the film, and both Eddie Peng and Xin absolutely excel at delivering an authentic portrayal of two complex characters. The decision to have the action take place ahead of the 2008 Beijing Olympics makes sense, as when China hosted the games, the country invested nearly $40 billion in infrastructure in the lead-up to it, which led to much excitement but also took its toll on citizens. This adds a layer of social commentary to the movie that makes it stand out even more.

Where Black Dog falters, however, is in its overabundance of narrative threads. On top of its main storyline, we also have a subplot involving Butcher Hu’s revenge plans, various appearances of a woman (Tong Liya) from a touring circus that Lang briefly bonds with, and an impending total solar eclipse, and neither of these plotlines feels as interesting as the time spent with our lead. On top of this, there’s an insistence on repeatedly showing caged dogs throughout the film that, as an animal lover, made for an uncomfortable watch from time to time, particularly as we didn’t really need all those scenes to get the film’s message.

Despite these setbacks, Black Dog remains a very impressive film as a whole, for its innovative blend of genres, the superb acting and cinematography on display, and a central storyline that’s bound to tug at your heartstrings. When the end credits rolled, I couldn’t help but burst into tears, and realized just how emotional the movie had made me. Black Dog somehow manages to be both endearing and heart-wrenching, and it will leave you with a feeling that you won’t be able to shake.


Black Dog (Gou Zhen) premiered at the Cannes Film Festival on May, 2024, where it won the Un Certain Regard Prize. Read our review of The Dog Thief!

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