Saturday 24 May 2014

Cannes 2014: White God by Kornél Mundruczó

The hype machine works overdrive at the Cannes Film Festival. Everybody wants to have discovered the latest talent of note, and critical hits here get more severely judged when they come out as a result. But sometimes this hype spreads through the festival itself, even within the same day as it happened after the morning screening of It Follows at La Semaine de la Critique. So this is already with a certain weight of expectations that I watched White God at a catch-up screening near the end of the festival, on the back of some great feedback. An expectation which rose when director Kornél Mundruczó came on stage to introduce as the film, where normally cast and crew only stay for three days, and I correctly predicted that the film was about to win the Un Certain Regard prize, despite Force Majeure being the favourite. So were the expectations met?

White God (not to be confused with Samuel Fuller's White Dog!) opens with the nightmarish scene of a teenage girl on a bike being chased by a large pack of gods. We then flash back to how this came to be: because of a clamping down on mixed-breeds dogs from the government, Lili (Zsofia Psotta) sees her father release her beloved dog, Hagen, in the streets. Now homeless, the dog learns to wise up to the tough world of the street, and becomes part of a gang of other stray dogs. But soon they are all captured and taken to a kennel, ran by its cruel owner with an iron first. It is not long before the dogs work together to escape and unleash a dog apocalypse on the streets of Budapest, while Lily is desperately looking for her furry friend.

Director Kornél Mundruczó made a name for himself on the world festival circuit with his two last films, Delta (2008) and Tender Son - The Frankenstein Project (2010). But here he is likely to reach a wider exposure with his latest film, featuring the most unlikely premise of the festival. A sort of social realistic sci-fi fable, White God is an assured and compelling film, in which some very unlikely elements come together perfectly. It often feels like the kind of cruel and meaningful fairy tales that we are too afraid to produce nowadays, those in which children faced real dangers, and in which violence and death used to feature prominently.

You do not have to look very far to see this as a metaphor for the plights of immigrants the world over, easy scapegoats from governments who think nothing of treating them like, well, dogs! And some of the most horrific scenes in the second act are all the more affective considering how real what came before feels. Having said that, I do worry some might oversell the film a little, and you should expect the sort of dog apocalypse (can't wait for all the puns for that one!) that would make it the canine equivalent of the Planet of the Apes franchise, the uprising, as scary as it is, remains very localised.

Most incredible of all is the acting by the dogs and especially Hagen. And what the director have achieved with him is nothing short of breathtaking. No CGI was used, rather, the reliance on professional trainers, a tradition that has long been perpetuated in the Hungarian culture. You think it might be difficult to get a dog to go in the right direction and move when needed, but here Hagen is doing more than that, he is properly acting, proving to be possibly the most expressive dog ever seen on the silver screen.

A thrillingly original hybrid of social metaphor, fairy tale and horror, White God is destined to reach cult status.

White God. Hungary. Un Certain Regard

Directed by Kornél Mundruczó. Starring Zsofia Psotta, Sándor Szótér, Lili Horváth...

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