Movie review: White God, a four-star horror story about pet abandonment

The Hungarian film shows how pet abandonment can have real and grisly consequences

Review/Drama/WHITE GOD (NC16)/121 minutes/Opens tomorrow/****

The story: When laws are passed in Hungary placing a heavy tax on the owners of mixed-breed dogs, shelters are swamped with unwanted pets. Lili's (Zsofia Psotta) beloved Hagen is a mongrel, but her father (Sandor Zsoter) refuses to pay the tax, opting to abandon the dog. Hagen must now fend for itself in a hostile world.

You can go online to learn how director and co-writer Kornel Mundruczo gathered and coordinated an army of 250 real, breathing, furry dogs for the film's massive ensemble scenes.

But knowing the logistics of dog herding will not prepare you, in the film's climax, for the sight of the canine tsunami sweeping across the city.

That sequence is frightening and primal, evoking fears of implacable natural forces or, more prosaically, a blood-thirsty mob devoid of rational purpose, fuelled by hate.

It is also more visually impressive than anything you might have seen in a US$200-million (S$273-million) sci-fi blockbuster.

At one level, Mundruczo's work functions as an animal adventure, a story of pets embarking on a long, perilous journey home (the Disney classic The Incredible Journey, 1963).

The relationship between Lili and the dog she adores is portrayed simply and without histrionics, but is no less powerful for its bare-bones style.

But that tale of an animal hero surviving in the big bad world turns into something far more sinister very quickly. Pet abandonment carries very real and grisly consequences for their former owners.

The film, the Hungarian entry at this year's Academy Awards for Best Foreign Language Film (it was not shortlisted), in its latter segments becomes a cautionary horror story, a blend of rabid-dog account Cujo (1983) with a dash of George Orwell's Animal Farm and Hitchcock's The Birds (1963).

Winner of the Un Certain Regard award at last year's Cannes Film Festival, the animal uprising is meant to be a somewhat pompous reference to a possible revolt by non-white immigrants toiling at the bottom of the European social heap (hence the title).

But the movie is much more fun when enjoyed for what it is: a horror film with creature effects made from real creatures.

johnlui@sph.com.sg