Film: Quill [Kuiiru クイール]
Director: SAI Yoichi 崔洋一
Performers: KOBAYASHI Kaoru 小林薫, SHIINA Kippei 椎名桔平, Rafie ラフィー (adult Quill), Chibichibiku チビチビクー (baby Quill), Beat ビート & Chibiku チビクー (puppy Quill at 3 and 7 months, respectively), Eri エリ (senior Quill)
Production Information: Quill Film Partners, 2004 (Japan)
Breed(s) featured: Labrador Retriever, Golden Retriever (briefly, at the training center)
Meet the face that launched a thousand puppy sales.
This is the face of Quill, a Labrador Retriever with a curious birthmark and selected by his breeder to be a seeing eye dog. Despite some initial resistance from the directors at the training center (since candidates usually come from pre-approved breeders), he is enrolled into their guide dog program. The film follows Quill through his early socialization with a foster family, his adolescent training period, and his brief working relationship with his one and only master before tragedy ends his career as a personal guide dog. Instead, he lives out the remainder of his adulthood at the training center as an ambassador and demonstration dog, finally returning to the foster family who shared his first year in the world, and sees him through to his final hours.
WARNING!! SPOILERS AHEAD!!
For a dog film, it’s relatively understated and unsentimental (though the soundtrack leaves much to be desired). Given the director’s background working alongside revered “art” director OSHIMA Nagisa and his own brutal work in films like Blood and Bones (released the same year, starring Beat Takeshi) Sai seemed a surprising choice to direct… a dog film. But inspiration often comes from unlikely sources. Quill works because Sai is adept at teasing out character quirks, especially from flawed personalities. This is relevant to the blind, cantankerous, yet civic-minded Mr. Watanabe (KOBAYASHI Kaoru) who is paired up with the title character when he begrudgingly trades in his white cane for a guide dog after trainer Satoru Tawada (SHINA Kippei) convinces him that he’ll be able to get more done with Quill at his side, rather than fumbling along with his cane.
I also have to give props to the choice in casting Kippei Shiina as the guide dog handler. Since the training process itself is already in danger of being portrayed in an overly fictionalized manner (more about this in a second), it’s reassuring that they at least chose one actor whose body language conveys cool confidence and ease around the many dogs with whom he shares scenes (rather in contrast to Kobayashi). As a handler, Tawada-san is firm, but not harsh. Authoritative, but not authoritarian, if that makes sense. He observes the dogs just as much as they are trained to watch their masters, and this crucial detail makes all the difference in persuading me that the dogs bond to their people over the course of working — not just as “living props,” but as canine actors who adapt to their environment, even when it’s a movie set.
This is a detail that a lot of dog film directors overlook when casting and filming. Audience eyes aren’t just on the dog. Particularly for audiences who know and are already intimately familiar with that relationship, they’re looking for the ways in which the dogs and the humans behave together, as it’s that mutual chemistry that gives emotional drive to the story.
For this film, its charm and novelty was that its main canine star was both cute and functional. The idea of a seeing eye dog is still relatively fresh in Asia. The Kansai Guide Dog Training Center, where this was partially filmed, was erected in 1988, and currently manages to train about 15 dogs a year. The Taiwan Guide Dog Association was only founded in 2002, just two years before Quill hit my corner of the world, and unfortunately, sparked a boom for Labrador puppies who grew far too large for most small urban apartment dwellers. Consequently, the lengthy training sequences serve double duty: they work to reveal something about the characters, and also to familiarize audiences with the idea of a highly trained working companion dog.
In the end, I think the film does a good, though not perfect job straddling both documentary and dramatic functions. What I find to be the most strange, I suppose, is the way that time elapses in the film. A lot of training procedures that are most certainly quite specialized and tedious are elided or simplified for the sake of moving the plot along. The one gem of a training philosophy to be extracted from this film is that the more you learn to listen to your dog, the more your dog will listen to you. If an audience member picks up any training tricks from this film (and there’s very little offered up for meaningful mimicry) it’s probably this dumbed down notion that it’s easy, almost effortless, to turn any “ordinary” Labrador into a highly specialized working dog.
Of course, not all dogs are similarly responsive, nor are they given the benefits of working with a full-time handler. The fictional democratization of the guide dog training process, as it were, is precisely what imperiled so many Lab puppies after the film’s highly successful run all throughout Asia, such that the subsequent release of any dog film, particularly one featuring purebred dogs, is boycotted by animal lovers hoping to stave off the “Quill effect.” At least, this is one of the films to which such boycotts are pegged in Asian countries; pet ownership wasn’t necessarily in popular reach when 101 Dalmatians was released in either 1961 or 1996, which is the title that generally gets referenced for cautionary linkages between dog films and purebred fads in the Western world.
Finally, I was a little dissatisfied with the treatment of Quill’s final years. Audience members who had already read the best-selling novel and knew portions of the story from the TV series that preceded the movie are not at all surprised by the eventual death of Mr. Watanabe, though their last goodbye is no less tragic. This sequence is very moving and portrayed with appropriate succinctness, keeping melodrama at bay.
I’m not sure if I can say the same for Quill’s death, which is drawn out over the final 3 minutes of the film. The CGI rendering of the accident that cripples the poor senior dog and the weepy dialogue was really too much for me, in combination with the all too perfectly scripted karmic circularity of Quill returning to the “puppy walkers” of his childhood. “It was like he never left our home,” narrates the woman who had been his first foster parent.
But the whole point is that Quill had left, and had a long lifetime of experiences at the training center, with the Watanabe family, then back at the training center after the family surrendered him following Mr. Watanabe’s death. Quill had been in his prime when he was ended his career as a personal guide dog, but he did not retire from the center until he was 12 years old. Maybe nothing nearly as dramatic happened in those intervening years, but by collapsing an entire seven years of his life into 5 minutes, we lose sense of just how long a dog lives, and just how large of a responsibility that may be. Though it was beautiful and fitting that Quill was assured such a perfect safety net in his senior years, the end seems too much like a fairy tale. They really wanted to give the audience a final chance to turn on the waterworks. Coupled with the glowing, larger-than-life flashback to Quill’s newborn visage right before the credits roll, it just seemed a bit like polishing off a hearty meal with a gulp of cotton candy. I’m not sure how they could have concluded the film to do justice to the lives portrayed, but in my opinion, the puppy parting shot wasn’t it.
Or maybe I’m the only one in the whole world who would dare resist the face of a Labrador puppy.
Acknowledgments go to Michael W., who sent me this DVD several years ago. Sometimes it takes that long to watch the films that I have in my possession, but I do get around to them all eventually. Meanwhile, Quill doesn’t appear to be available as a US release. YesAsia.com currently lists a Thai region-free DVD available here.
Edit: Fixed a couple instances where I typed La-BO-rador, even though I know that’s not how it’s spelled. Thinking in Japanese, I guess.