White God Dir. Kornél Mundruczó

[Magnolia Pictures; 2014]

Styles: (see review)
Others: Tender Son - The Frankenstein Project, Johanna, We3

Genre can be a confounding thing. At its most benign, it can be an easy and helpful way to describe and categorize a work of art. At its worst, it can be used to label, pigeonhole, and lump in a variety of different, unclassifiable styles. It can help build buzz, but it can also be used as a death sentence, as readers familiar with mumblecore (or perhaps more famously, chillwave, seapunk and vaporwave in music) are well aware of. Creating and categorizing into genres is just another way that we as humans try to order and catalog an essentially chaotic media universe. So it is with a sobering awareness that I shall attempt to use “genre” to approach White God, the newest film from Hungarian writer-director Kornél Mundruczó.

When 13-year old Lili (newcomer Zsófia Psotta), whose parents are getting divorced, moves in with her father, he refuses to let her keep her mixed-breed dog and best friend Hagen. Mongrel dogs are subject to a heavy tax forcing owners to favor purebreds (thankfully this seems to be a plot device invented for the film, and not the actual state of affairs in Hungary). Lili’s father, unwilling to pay the tax, abandons Hagen on the side of the road. What follows are the two’s experiences apart, as Lili struggles to first live without Hagen, and then find him, while Hagen, on the other hand, undergoes a series of ordeals, from living in a pound to being trained to dogfight that culminates in his commandeering a large group of strays and overtaking the city. It sounds like it should be a children’s movie, is plotted like a revenge film, and has elements of superhero blockbusters, coming of age dramas, slasher flicks and road movies. This insane jumble of genres results in a film that struggles to find its tone throughout.

Mundruczó pulls off an impressive Bourne Identity-like chase scene through the streets of Budapest, but when the dogs meet up with riot police in a blockaded tunnel and several are gunned down, it all seems a bit too weird. Part of what may explain the sudden shifting between angry defiance and elegiac quiet that the dogs take on comes from the political ideology of the film. Director Mundruczó sees the film as a thinly veiled allegory of man’s insistence on ruling and colonization over other peoples, justifying their actions by proclaiming the ruled as “lesser beasts.” In an interview accompanying the press notes, Mundruczó explains that dogs represent “the eternal outcast whose master is his god,” while the “White” of the title refers to the privileged Western civilization.

The use of dogs as a stand-in for minorities and the oppressed is both an inspired and tricky one. Inspired because dogs, and animals in general, stir human compassion like nothing else. How many times has a villain been introduced as a child torturing a puppy? Something about dogs, their loyalty and compassion, arouses these same emotions in us. There is even a Palm Dog award given out during Cannes each year, which the canine cast of White Dog took home in 2014. Whereas aligning dogs with the maligned may seem foolproof at first glance, in practice it’s actually much more difficult. In cinema, dogs are almost always associated with less serious and idea-driven genres: They populate children’s movies, animated films, and occasionally serve as a sidekick to a young cop or the star of the high school basketball team. After spending two-thirds of the film building towards Hagen and the strays’ vengeance, Mundruczó fails to make the violence cathartic or distressing enough to overcome this.

Though a film’s genre should have no bearing on its actual merits, all too often we fall back on genre to describe our tastes (“I don’t watch horror movies”; “I’ll listen to anything except country or rap”). But what makes White God such an interesting, and ultimately noteworthy, viewing is the interplay between these genres and how our expectations within these genres changes as the film shifts. It’s a puzzling film that left me scratching my head, but that’s not always a bad thing.

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