Film: Our Neighbor [Jietou xiangwei 街頭巷尾]
Director: Lee Hsing 李行
Performers: LEE Kuan-chang [Li Guanzhang 李冠章], LUO Wanlin 羅宛琳, You Juan 游娟, Lei Ming 雷鳴, unnamed dog (“Little Dog”)
Breed featured: Terrier mix
Production Information: Zili, 1963 (Taiwan)
In a poverty-stricken corner of urban Taiwan, a small group of Taiwanese and Mainland emigres form a community built upon “love between mother and daughter, between compatriots, and of a small orphaned girl, and the moving fraternal love of the poor masses.” The group learns how to coexist, overcome differences, and triumph despite trauma in this uplifting, sentimental story. Saccharine as it may be, this film is exactly what resonated with audiences of the time, and moved director Lee Hsing to center stage in the emergent Mandarin-language film circles in the Republic of China on Taiwan.
This director is important, but I won’t go into the details here; you’ll have to ask me in another context as to how he became a household name. What’s important for the purposes of this blog is that he went so far as to include a very special dog in the film that would serve to launch his grand career.
The dog doesn’t really have a name. They just address him generically as “little dog” (xiaogou), though he is treated as a treasured member of the community. In particular, he is present at moments of stress and consternation — which, for poor people, unfortunately happen often.
The physical interaction between humans and dog is fairly subtle, but I think it’s significant. The dog appears at moments that both reflect and amplify the anxieties of the human characters. We have no idea of where he came from, what his own story is. Then again, we don’t know that much about the humans’ backgrounds, either. We do know that every character has a function and a role in this community, contributive or extractive. The little dog, apparently, contributes by extracting anxiety — as a docile, obedient therapy animal, of sorts.
The fact that he doesn’t clearly contribute to the community makes him vulnerable, after all. It’s not like they need him for hunting or ratting or anything other than comforting his people at home. When Pearl, his owner and one of the central characters in this story, is in need of money, the only thing she has of value to pawn off is the little dog. And so she does, barely aware of what kind of future she may be condemning her formerly beloved pet. She knows the dog is inherently “worth” something… she just doesn’t necessarily understand why.
The adult viewer at the time, however, understands the gravity and peril of the situation all too well. Frankly, Little Dog has a greater chance of being resold as meat than as pet or even a “working” dog. Pearl has left the dog’s fate entirely up to chance, just like the public lottery tickets (also for resale) she bought with the money she got from selling her dog. This is the order of life in 1960s Taiwan. But while Pearl’s customers can scratch and just be out a bit of cash when they lose, Little Dog is in danger of losing his very life. That’s what makes the scene so devastating, even if the consequences are removed by several steps.
Nevertheless, it’s entirely to director Lee and his scriptwriter’s credit that they made sure to tie up loose ends and explain that yes, the dog was safely recovered after all. Who cares about the unlikely circumstances of his return — a neighbor happened to run into the anonymous dog-buyer and buy back the dog (at who knows what cost). I’m glad that director felt that Little Dog was important enough to include a resolution, since he could easily have just dropped him from the storyline as so often happens to film dogs… Lee, however, had a sense that the dog would matter to audiences, as he must have mattered to him.
For every potential dogeater in the audience, there was at least one who would find such practices gruesome and abhorrent. Lee took sides with the latter.
I first saw this pre dogblog days. Recently revisited, I was impressed by how much one could get out of just focusing on the dog. So very interesting to see concern for the canine given equal status as the urban underclass, the female, the ethnic minority, and other vulnerable groups — even as early as 1963, in postwar Taiwan, where one might assume that so many other things would matter more.