‘Black Dog’ Review: The 2008 Olympics Cast Shadows Over a Lost Soul and His Lost Dog in Guan Hu’s Desert Noir

No matter how badly your week is going, it’s worth pausing to appreciate the fact that you’re not currently embroiled in a violent feud with a snake venom dealer who calls himself Butcher Hu. But we can’t all be so lucky.

Lang (Eddie Peng) is a changed man since coming out of prison. Emotionally callused and silent by choice, you’d never guess that he was once a beloved entertainer who played rock music and rode motorcycles in the local circus. But when he leaves the joint and returns to his small hometown in China’s Gobi Desert, there’s nothing waiting for him except bad vibes. His father is drinking himself to death at the local zoo, his neighbors resent him for his perceived crimes and assume he got a light sentence because of his celebrity, and his town is overrun with rabid dogs. To make matters worse, the local snake meat and kebab mogul is ready to sick his goons on Lang and his family to get revenge for old grievances.

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So begins “Black Dog,” Guan Hu’s desert-set redemption saga that marries a pulpy thirst for revenge with the sentimental belief that sometimes a good dog is enough to turn everything around. Lang succumbs to the age-old neo-noir protagonist’s fallacy of thinking that the ghosts of his past will leave him alone if he just keeps his head down and mouth shut while he builds a new life. He takes a job on a squad tasked with rounding up all of the stray dogs ahead of the 2008 Beijing Olympics, a grueling task made harder by the fact that the town lives in fear of a black dog that purportedly has rabies. Everyone has been warned to steer clear of the dangerous animal at all costs, but out of some combination of contrarian instincts and sympathy for a fellow outcast, Lang decides to defy orders and befriend the animal. Suffice it to say, that proves to be a wise choice when his world starts to close in around him.

It has become increasingly apparent in recent years that taking on the vast construction projects required to host an Olympics is rarely the kind of government resource allocation that benefits many citizens. Perhaps that’s why so many recent games have been held in authoritarian countries, where political corruption makes it easier to expedite big projects without that pesky will of the people getting in the way. “Black Dog” directly engages with the tension between the immense pride that China took in hosting the 2008 games — which many viewed as a coming out party for a formerly authoritarian nation that had decided it was ready to join the Western world — and the price that its actual citizens paid to host the lavish event.

That setting becomes the strongest aspect of “Black Dog,” which takes place in place in the shadows of the Olympics as the people being displaced by the pageantry lead lives of quiet desperation. Guan uses the sparse scenery to build a world of crumbling neon signs, snake meat stands, and roadside circuses — a desert landscape with more than enough cracks for evil to nestle into. As time goes on, an ensemble of carnies, alcoholics, mechanics, and other misfits with secrets — including Jia Zhangke in a particularly memorable supporting turn — slowly emerges from the seemingly empty town. The harsh backdrop evokes elements of both Westerns and film noir, giving Peng the perfect canvas for his silent drifter act. That noir-like intensity proves to be an ironic complement to what is ultimately a simple man-and-his-dog story, but Peng’s magnetic camera presence is the binding agent that unifies everything into a coherent story of redemption in the unlikeliest of places.

While the plot runs out of gas and occasionally threatens to go off the rails, Guan’s strong visual direction ensures that “Black Dog” never ceases to be interesting. The filmmaker demonstrates a keen eye for framing the desert scenery, and many of the action sequences are choreographed with a geometrically complex density that’s reminiscent of Jacques Tati. The skillful direction allows “Black Dog” to alternate between dark comedy and hardboiled crime with ease as the two lost souls piece together something resembling a new life.

Depending on how you look at it, “Black Dog” is either the most violently depraved feel-good animal movie in recent memory or the most wholesome neo-noir we’ve seen in a while. Lang might not get the happiest ending on the planet, but the subtle rays of light that begin to seep through Peng’s face are enough to tell us that the seeds of redemption can grow roots in even the darkest pits of corruption.

Grade: B

“Black Dog” premiered at the 2024 Cannes Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.

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