The heartrending tale of a faithful dog who continued to wait for his late owner at a cable car station becomes a poignant symbol for a left behind China in Xu’s Ang’s reimagining of the 1987 Japanese film scripted by Kaneto Shindo, Hachiko (忠犬八公, zhōng quǎn bā gōng). Xu keeps the original title which translates as “faithful dog Hachiko” (Hachiko comprising of the characters for “eight” and “public” which when used in names conveys a note of nobility), but changes the puppy’s name to “Batong” which means “eight dots” and is taken from a mahjong title he naughtily runs off with after being taken in by kindhearted professor Chen Jingxiu (played by film director Feng Xiaogang).
The film opens, however, in the present day with Jingxiu’s wife (Joan Chen) and son (Bai Jugang) returning to Chongqing after many years living in Beijing and remarking on how much the city has changed. These days the cable car system across the Yangtze is a nostalgic tourist attraction with crossing the river increasingly easy thanks to a widescale bridge project. Jingxiu was a professor of engineering working on infrastructure projects, but despite the allure of progress the opening scenes suggest a quiet note of melancholy that runs underneath with constant references to the Three Gorges Dam project which led to mass displacement throughout the region as traditional villages were sunk beneath the reservoir.
It’s in one of these villages that Jingxiu finds Batong, an abandoned puppy left behind when the village was evacuated. He brings him home with him despite knowing that his wife has an aversion to dogs owing to having been bitten as a child, and attempts to hide him from the rest of the family later suggesting that he’s just waiting to find a suitable owner to rehome him but clearly having no intention of doing so. The callousness with which some people treat animals is fully brought home when Jingxiu’s wife gives Batong away to a man who clearly intends to sell him for dog meat with Jingxiu managing to rescue him in the nick of time.
In some ways, the professor and dog bond precisely because they are outsiders neither of whom is actually from Chonqing. Jingxiu’s family members often tease him for still not understanding the local dialect despite having lived there for decades while he often seems as if he feels out of place in his own home. When he’s asked to give up the dog, Jingxiu refuses insisting that some of their habits such as his wife’s obsession with mahjong, his son’s newfangled internet career, and his daughter’s grungy boyfriend, annoy him but he respects their right to be happy and would never try to stop them from doing something they love so he’s putting his foot down and Batong stays. This sense of solidarity binds them tightly to each other which might be why Batong often escapes in the morning to chase Jingxiu to the cable car, later returning in the afternoon to welcome him home.
There is something undeniably poignant in Batong’s waiting at the station for someone who’ll never return in part because the cable car itself has become somewhat obsolete despite having been completed only in the mid-1980s. Jingxiu dies of a heart attack on a boat on the Yangtze circling the site of the dam, disappearing amid its landscape as so many others also did. He left on the train but did not return by it, and so Batong is unable to understand his absence or grasp the concept of death. Displaced himself, the lost dog becomes a melancholy stray trapped in another China and longing for the return to something that no longer exists.
Jingxiu’s house is soon pulled down too, exiling his wife to the modern metropolis of Beijing now a displaced person herself as these traditional spaces are gradually erased in the name of progress. Batong makes his home in the ruins, continuing to wait like a lonely ghost in the rapidly changing city. Undeniably moving in its unabashed sentimentality in which Batong is finally reunited with Jingxiu as they board the cable car together, the film is also a poignant tribute to man’s best friend and a plea to end animal cruelty, ending with a heartfelt message encouraging the adoption of stray dogs many of whom like Batong are simply looking for a place to belong.
Hachiko screened in UK cinemas courtesy of CMC.
International trailer (English subtitles)