White God (2014)

Review #1,153

Director:  Kornél Mundruczó
Cast:  Zsófia Psotta, Sándor Zsótér, Lili Horváth
Plot:  Thirteen-year-old Lili fights to protect her dog Hagen.  She is devastated when her father eventually sets Hagen free on the streets.  Still innocently believing love can conquer any difficulty, Lili sets out to find her dog and save him.

Genre:  Drama
Awards:  Won Un Certain Regard Award & Palm Dog (Cannes).
Runtime:  121min
Rating:  NC16 for violent content including bloody images, and language.

Back in 2008 when I was doing my national service, I was cycling into camp in the wee hours of the morning.  My nose got itchy, and I sneezed loudly.  Out came a pack of stray dogs.  They chased after me.  I cycled as fast as I could, but they caught up, and one of them stared into my eyes and bit my leg.  It was quite painful, but I continue to show dogs my unconditional love after the frightening incident. 

A similar scene occurs in White God, at the very start.  A young girl in a hood on a bicycle cycles through an empty Hungarian town, and a pack (my word, it is a huge pack) of dogs comes chasing after her.  It is a rousing way to begin a film, and I thought to myself, this is gonna be an excellent picture.  But I was proven wrong, and I'll tell you a bit of why.

White God is about a girl whose dog is left on the street after her father refuses to pay a tax to keep the dog.  The girl doesn't want her dog to be left in a dog shelter either.  I wish to say no more, otherwise I will be perpetuating the cycle of predictability that this film is. 

A feel good, rather mainstream foreign language movie, if there ever was one, White God brings you to feel a number of emotions – ecstasy, anger, frustration and disbelief.  The film's narrative path is charted predictably; you know how it's going to pan out, you know how the father-daughter relationship will falter and be redeemed.  Of course, you might be swept up in the flurry of emotions and drama that you forget that the film is straightforward to a fault – I mean this to the film’s credit.  

White God could have been a much more forgettable movie if not for two things – that it is a Hungarian film, and that it showcases superb direction of dogs by filmmaker Kornél Mundruczó.  We don't see many Hungarian movies here in Singapore, so when one appears in the cinema outside of a film festival, it becomes a novelty. 

There's also the danger of pretending to like it more than you would care to because of its 'world cinema' tag, especially if you aren't that impressed by how the film plays out.  However, credit is due wherein dogs are concerned.  It is painfully difficult to direct animals in movies, so kudos to Mundruczó and his crew (and animal trainers) for giving us some astonishing scenes in the climax.

It can also be a tough film to see, with dogs engaging in violent dog fights and being made to develop aggression and hatred.  While it is reassuring to learn that no animals were harmed in the making of the picture, I'm curious if it also encompasses the psychological?  How we can enjoy a film like this is highly dependent on the answers.  That it is only sporadically engaging is perhaps its greatest blessing.

Verdict:  The superb direction of dogs cannot mask how predictable and sporadically engaging this drama is.

GRADE: C+ (6.5/10 or 3 stars)

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