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Film: Legend of the T-Dog [Mingyun gou bu li 命運狗不理]
Director: Li Tian-chueh 李天爵
Performers: Wang Po-chieh 王柏傑, Lin Ruoya 霖若亞, Blackberry 黑莓 (T-Dog)
Animal trainer: Chen Ying-jie 陳英傑
Breed featured: Taiwan tugou, Formosan Mountain Dog, Golden Retriever (brief), French Bulldog (brief)
Production information: Dilu Quan 的盧犬, 2012 (Taiwan)

Ah Dou is an aid at a hospital where several people are rushed in for bizarre, life-threatening emergencies. Each time, there is a mysterious black dog chasing the ambulance — the titular T-dog, named such because he bears a distinctive gold T emblazoned across his forehead, and also probably because is a classic Taiwan tugou.

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As it turns out, the T-Dog is a modern day incarnation of an inauspicious “hellhorse” from ancient times. Anyone who assumes dominion over this creature enjoys short term success, but then inevitably befalls calamity upon the 49th day.

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This is not a horror film, and for all its absurdity, it’s not quite comedy. Rather, it’s what new director Li Tian-chueh has characterized as some kind of avant-gardist science fantasy, in the Chinese literary tradition of zhiguai, “records of the strange,” with a decidedly contemporary, Taiwanese twist.

Folk religion, often pejoratively labeled “superstition,” is quite integrated into modern everyday practice in Taiwan. This is played out in the actions of Ah Dou, who cultivates a warm, altruistic personality to stave off the misfortune which has plagued his family for generations. Ah Dou’s concern for his ragtag, downtrodden neighbors manifests as a cheerful obsession. For as much good as he tries to do for others, Ah Dou often gets in trouble because he can’t keep his own act together.

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One day, when Ah Dou is down on his luck, he witnesses the T-Dog struggling with a dog catcher, and decides to intervene. Against the admonitions of his colleagues, he takes the dog home and names him “Happy” (a pun on ‘black coat,’ heipi 黑皮) to signal the new directions he intends to pursue.

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For a while, the canine charm seems to work. The kindness he showed to his neighbors is repaid when they set him up with an apartment after an unexpected eviction. He finds comfort and learns to make his home anew by living with a cool dog. After being fired from his hospital job, he even manages to get with Dr. Lai, the beautiful head doctor from his old ward.

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Ah Dou’s allegiances and beliefs are put to one final test. A stranger contacts him, offering him a rare postage stamp to finish a set that Ah Dou has been trying to collect. His father died clinging to the belief that this complete postage set will break the family curse, so Ah Dou continued the search out of filial duty. However, the stranger wants to exchange the stamp for the T-Dog.

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An interesting proposition. It seems like a clear decision to exchange the unlucky dog for a clean slate. However, in part because of his girlfriend’s urging, Ah Dou decides that he must commit to protect his “family members” in the present, no matter how his past may have determined is fate. With that, he passes the test and the curse is lifted… as it turns out the stranger is another incarnation of an ancient eccentric that Ah Dou had wronged in a previous life. That relationship had been the basis of the multi-generational curse all along, not the possession or lack or any lucky talismans.

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As I was working through this summary, I realized how this film’s premise is really quite charming, but unfortunately, much of its potential was lost in execution. For the very first drama to feature a Taiwan dog as a lead character, I had high hopes. Blackberry 黑莓, the tugou recruited for the part, was actually scouted from her prominent cameo in the 2011 blockbuster Warriors of the Rainbow: Seediq Bale (on the list to be blogged).

However, Legend of the T-Dog was filmed under very different conditions. According to the ‘making of’ video above, there was definitely an acclimatization and socialization process to get Blackberry accustomed to working with her costars. Taiwan dogs make for recalcitrant movie stars, as they don’t easily open up to strangers and can be nervous and flighty on a busy set.

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Blackberry, fortunately, was very food-motivated.

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She was also extraordinarily tolerant of ridiculous costuming and lots of (wo)manhandling!

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It is much to Blackberry’s credit that she performed and was filmed so well, despite the movie’s faults! That said, she’s also indicative of how poorly the characters were constructed. Sure, she was probably the most “experienced” Taiwan dog actor for the part, but if they were going to go through the trouble of dyeing additional markings on her, I don’t know why they didn’t just go ahead and give her four white paws and a white streak across her chest, to tap into the superstitions that continue to be deeply ingrained in the Taiwanese popular imagination of “unlucky” dogs.

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My aunt’s Taiwan dog, Nyo-nyo

I also don’t know what’s up with Ah Dou’s goofy-looking mustache, the panoply of fantasy cultists who stand in as exaggerated quirks of local folk religion, and the obnoxious nurses whom Ah Dou works with at the hospital. Ah Dou himself is fairly nondescript as a generic “good guy” character, whom you end up rooting for only because everyone else is so utterly annoying. I would really have liked to see more examples of his developing relationship with the dog, rather than the doctor, to add some depth to both human and canine characters.

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Legend of the T-Dog was a valiant attempt to experiment with dog movie conventions, moving beyond the typical tropes of cuddly, infantilized, domesticated creatures, and trying to invest the dog with some kind of historical or cultural significance. All the elements failed to alchemize in the end, leaving the audience with a little bit of black gold… and a whole lot of lead.

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