An ironic — and almost contrarily leisurely — comedy of manners about a Beijinger trying to get his mutt back from the pound, “Cala, My Dog” is a collection of grace-notes on contempo Mainland life that may prove too low-key for most western auds. Pic seems likely to take a short trot through Asian-themed events (where helmer Lu Xuechang is a known quantity) but, despite the film’s many qualities, wider distribution looks limited to specialized tube kennels.
At its world preem in the Berlin fest’s Forum section, publicity material from sales agent Celestial Pictures did the pic no favors by selling it as some kind of wacky family comedy. Though the movie stars popular comedian Ge You (“Big Shot’s Funeral,” “Be There or Be Square”), and is co-exec produced by hitmeister Feng Xiaogang, “Cala” is nothing of the sort.
Set in 1995, when dog permits were introduced in Beijing to counter rabies, pic centers on Lao Er (Ge), whose beloved but unlicensed pooch, Cala, is confiscated when his wife (Ding Jiali) unadvisedly takes it for a walk one evening. The family has 18 hours to find the 5,000 yuan ($600) for a permit before Cala is taken to the city outskirts and set loose.
It’s a huge amount for a blue-collar worker like Ge, so immediately, in traditional Chinese style, the family thinks of ways to get around the problem. None of them have any “connections” with the police, and their son, Liangliang (Li Bin), has been unsuccessful in invoking the help of an uncle who works at the pound. So, Lao Er visits an attractive neighbor, Yang Li (Li Qinqin), hoping to fool the cops by temporarily borrowing the permit for her dog, which was Cala’s mother.
Though the canine mug-shot on Yang’s permit looks almost identical to Cala, the cop in charge (Xia Yu) notices a small difference, and Lao Er is sent packing. It’s at this point the movie starts to develop resonance, as Lao Er returns to Yang Li and — though nothing is said directly — there are subtle hints the two had some kind of affair at one time. She clearly still likes him, and invokes the help of her ex-husband (Fu Biao) in trying to solve Lao Er’s problem.
As the day wears on, and Lao Er has to cope with his wife’s jealousy over his visits to Yang, as well as being cheated at an illegal animal mart, Liangliang ends up in police custody for supposedly “crippling” another kid in a fight. As the 4 p.m. deadline approaches, it looks unlikely Lao Er will ever see Cala again.
Writer-director Lu showed a keen eye for present-day Chinese realities in his first feature, “The Making of Steel,” made in 1995 but only released three years later in a modified version. “Cala” is a less ambitious but more rounded work, an affecting tale of everyday compromises and individual weaknesses told via a small event that mushrooms into a catalogue of complications. This is a picture with no heroes and no villains, and with a take on Mainland life that’s absolutely on the money.
Instead of pursuing the more obvious route of frantic comedy, Lu goes to the opposite extreme of downplaying the humor, especially in the performances. Ge (sans his trademark bald head) is much more subdued than usual, and Ding and Li Qinqin as the very different women in his life are equally fine. Xia, who started as a child actor in Jiang Wen’s “In the Heat of the Sun” (1994), is also excellent as the by-the-book but sympathetic cop.
Though it looks like a comic invention for the movie, Beijing dog-permits do actually include a picture of the animal concerned. All other details are spot-on, and technical credits are smooth, including Zhang Xigui’s sharp lensing of everyday city locations.