The Amazing Adventures of Hagen the Wonder Dog
By Nick Pinkerton
Dir. Kornél Mundruczó, Hungary, Magnolia Pictures
Immediately after seeing Kornél Mundruczó’s Budapest-set canine rebellion picture White God, I thought that I had merely seen a bad movie, though in the days afterwards it occurred to me that perhaps a sly political metaphor was at work in the film, and my opinion began to shift. To wit, I am now convinced that it is an utter and complete piece of irredeemable, self-important feculence.
Adolescent Lili (Zsófia Psotta) and her beloved mutt, Hagen, are sent to live with Lili’s estranged father, Daniel (Sándor Zsótér), when her mother goes abroad for a teaching assignment. Daniel is still embittered about his divorce and his diminished job prospects—once a “professor,” he now acts as whatever the Hungarian equivalent of an FDA inspector is in a slaughterhouse. He is a barely adequate parent, and most assuredly not a dog lover. His across-the-hall neighbor in his building is even less so, and out of sheer malice, the only emotion that seems to motivate adults in Mundruczó’s film, reports the animal to the authorities. They dutifully show up and demand that, because Hagen is mixed-breed, Daniel pay a fine to keep the dog. Instead, Daniel dumps the mutt at the side of a service road on the edges of town and drives away, while Lili cries out for her pet, and the orchestral score by Asher Goldschmidt surges.
Here the film breaks into parallel narrative strands. While Lili plasters Budapest with Lost Dog flyers and quietly slips into an emotional tailspin, Hagen tries to survive on his own in the mean streets. He joins a commune of strays who convene in a vacant lot, just in time to experience their frolic being broken up by a patrol of dogcatchers. After narrowly evading this and the meat cleaver of an aggravated butcher, he is sold into dogfighting and, following a daring escape and furtive taste of freedom, lands in a shelter where he is scheduled to be euthanized, having by now been reduced to a growling, snapping, savage state.
Hagen, like all of the dogs that we see onscreen here, is played by a living, breathing canine—in Hagen’s case, two brothers, Luke and Body, visiting from the U.S. Mundruczó and his cinematographer Marcell Rév manage some impressive feats with their star(s), such as a traveling shot that follows Hagen trotting over a bridge across the Danube, taking him from green Buda to mean, urban Pest, observing him periodically halted in astonishment by the tooting of the boats below. To see a project of so much scope and ambition—and White God reveals itself to have plenty of both—trusting the use of live animals instead of CG in this post-Jumanji, post-Marmaduke world is something out of the ordinary, and it lends the movie an undeniable veracity, a veracity that it proceeds to squander at every opportunity it gets.
The subject matter here may sound exceedingly grim, but beneath this is a sentimentality that will be familiar to viewers of such films as Benji the Hunted and Homeward Bound: The Incredible Journey, Walt Disney productions that specialize in assigning easily recognizable, always sympathetic human motivations to animal protagonists. (Coming April 17 from Disneynature: Monkey Kingdom!) Indeed, when after a tussle of lights-out confusion that follows Hagen’s first win in the dogfighting ring, Mundruczó cuts to a tracking shot of his canine protagonist having slipped the leash, bounding down the street in a brief moment of triumphant liberation, the audience at the New Directors/New Films Festival screening I saw the film with erupted into applause.
The argument may be made that what Mundruczó is doing at this moment is deviously giving his audience a taste of what they think they want before overwhelming them with a gluttonous feast of the same. For when Hagen is being led to the death chamber, he rips the throat out of his executioner and, gathering an army of fellow condemned strays around him, stages his second great escape, this one followed by a full-scale rebellion. With an ever-growing pack behind him, Hagen chases all humans from the streets of the capital, systematically liquidating the men and women who crossed him in the past, until finally he is reunited with Lili, a moment whose potentially fatal ramifications Mundruczó leaves hanging in the air for as long as he possibly can.
Given the remarkable memory for grudges that Hagen shows here, and the infallible sense of direction he employs in settling them, it’s unclear why the mutt didn’t just make his way back to Lili in the first place, but one need not question the logical consistency of the universe of Mundruczó’s film to reject it. And though White God is a film of crude, gouging emotional effects, this isn’t exactly the problem either—or at least the entire problem. The title, I can only suppose, is meant to evoke the 1970 Romain Gary novel Chien Blanc or, more specifically, White Dog, Sam Fuller’s 1982 film adaptation. The wordplay doesn’t appear to function quite so well in the original Hungarian—I am basing this on a foray into Google translation—but then Mundruczó certainly knew that he had an export-ready product on his hands, replete with a goes-down-smooth central metaphor (mixed-breed dogs as the immigrant peoples of Europe) that might make even Neill Blomkamp blush. (And Blomkamp would certainly make a more appropriate dedicatee than Miklós Jancsó, whom an opening title of White God pays tribute to, and whose son, Dávid, edited the film.)
A prominent central metaphor has never made a genre movie a great deal better, and it has made a great many much, much worse. The excuse of metaphor allows filmmakers to turn their back on the specific to favor the general, which excuses laziness, sketchiness, and a general indifference to the finer points of tone. Fuller, for his part, was never known for a dainty touch, but he did have an “eye,” and a reckless brazenness that, if you don’t respect it, might at least stun you into submission. Far from a Fullerian flurry, Mundruczó’s movie is a two-hour dawdle; when not galvanized by the challenge of working with animals, the director defaults to filmmaking that’s distinguished only by its punctilious adherence to naturalistic formulae that must come with your diploma from European film institutes, and a conspicuously bad party scene. While the sound design, by Gábor Balázs, is responsible for building up what depth and presence the film does have, White God contains exactly two memorable images—a fact that Mundruczó is certainly aware of, for he uses them to bookend his film. This does not have the intended result of creating a cumulative climactic effect, but instead makes the rest of the film feel like a long, flaccid droop between two poles.
That last composition, of a becalmed sea of obeisant dogs, is featured on the film’s U.S. poster—as was, coincidentally, the ultimate image of Tsai Ming-liang’s Stray Dogs, and it is worth thinking about how the capstone images of these films interface with what has proceeded them, as well as the difference between integrating metaphor and leaning on it. White God’s opening image, of Lili peddling furiously through the empty streets of Budapest on her bicycle to keep ahead of the onrushing wave of canines, actually recurs somewhere in the movie’s third act, but has been lifted and placed before the credits as a “teaser” for the audience to assure the carnage to come—it can’t be said that Mundruczó doesn’t know all the tricks. As well he should, for despite inclusion in the ever more vaguely defined New Directors/New Films, White God is the sixth film by the pushing-forty filmmaker. In its vague antiestablishment posturing, drubbing yet puritanically thrill-resistant nastiness, and capsule-ready conceit, it embodies the worst aspects of an instinct dulled by professionalism.