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Film: La Condition Canine [Gou de zhuang kuang 狗的状况]
Director: JIA Zhangke 贾樟柯
Breed featured: Shepherd mixes, Chinese village dogs
Production Information:: 2001 (China)

In a rural Chinese town, a bunch of puppies are stuffed tightly into two hemp bags, sealed inside, then left in the road.

Men and chained dogs mill about, nonchalant and idle. The puppies continue crying in the background, indignant, scared, cramped and confused. You cannot see them, but you cannot ignore them.

Eventually, one of the puppies manages to chew his way out of imprisonment. First his muzzle is visible, then his whole head. Rebirth. His attempted escape is noticed, and the surrounding villagers react with bemusement. A few hands tug at the bag, twist it around for a better view, but the puppy doesn’t try to worm his way out. Instead, he sits silently, almost too docile for the situation, while the remaining puppies continue to squirm inside the bag.

And with no further explanation, the film ends. It’s all of six minutes long.

When I am in a good mood, I am willing to interpret the film as a message of hope. Maybe this is the lone brave wolf who might be saved from the rest of the puppies’ unknown fate. There’s at least one resourceful, resilient puppy in the whole bag. This one has proven himself to be ahead of the pack.

But when I’m in a foul mood, I can’t see what the poor puppy could possibly look forward to — a lifetime chained to a tire in a dusty yard, like the rest of the adult dogs? Did he stop trying to fight his way out when he saw how little his escape mattered? Where would he or could he have gone if he was able to get out?

It’s the dilemma of Lu Xun’s iron house for the new millennium, written doggy-style.

‘Imagine an iron house having not a single window and virtually indestructible, with all its inmates sound asleep and about to die of suffocation. Dying in their sleep, they won’t feel the pain of death. Now if you raise a shout to wake a few of the lighter sleepers, making these unfortunate few suffer the agony of irrevocable death, do you really think you are doing them a good turn?’

‘But if a few wake up, you can’t say there is no hope of destroying the iron house.’

True, in spite of my own conviction, I could not blot out hope, for hope belongs to the future.

Lu Xun, “Preface to Call to Arms, 1922, Trans. Yang Xianyi and Gladys Yang, Lu Xun Selected Works Vol. I (Beijing: Foreign Languages Press, 2003) p.37

The outcry of the past century rendered as the whimper of puppies in this contemporary version. How one reacts to these pitiful cries — as dog, as human, as film spectator — is really the central test.

Availability: A supplementary short to the DVD Jia Zhangke Collected Short Films [Jia Zhangke duan pian ji 贾樟柯短片集] (Guangzhou: WorldStar Music, 2007) or streaming on various sites online.

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