Die Like a Dog

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LEAH KOHLENBERGWhy do bad things happen to good dogs? On one level, this is the central theme of State of Dogs, the odd tale of a Mongolian mongrel named Baasar. But this joint Belgian-Mongolian production also tries to pack in a lot more--from mythology to metaphysical musings, all set against the backdrop of modern Mongolia. It is an ambitious effort that isn't always easy to follow on screen. Yet there is something arresting about this small gem of a film, which has earned eight awards since its European release last year. (The film will be appearing in festivals across Asia this year.)The movie is based on the Mongolian belief that dogs are the last stage before humans in the reincarnation process. Baasar is shot by a hunter in Ulan Bator; as he dies, his soul ruminates via voice-over narration on the cruelty of people. In an attempt to come to terms with his destiny, Baasar reflects upon his life. Along the way, we are introduced to a hodgepodge of Mongolian myths and characters--poets, wrestlers, a contortionist--who serve as props in Baasar's quest for understanding.Though billed as a documentary, the movie defies standard classification. The players aren't actors, and most of the scenes are real--including the grim beginning, in which the camera follows a hunter on his murderous rounds. Basically, this is a fable made into something real, says Peter Brosens, the movie's co-director and producer.This is the first major film for Brosens and Mongolian co-director Dorjkhandyn Turmunkh, and this month's debut in Ulan Bator has both men nervous. The film shows Mongolia in a not-so-positive light, says Turmunkh. Perhaps, but no one's saying the country is going to the dogs.