The opening shot of White God is one of the most startling you’ll see from an indie film all year: a deserted city in the middle of the day, and a lone bike with a young girl riding through the streets. But before we mistake it for a 28 Days Later sequel, we witness hundreds of dogs stream into the roads; is this some sort of canine apocalypse?
Lili and her dog Hagen are a pair of troublemakers. Lili is an easily distracted young woman, and her new furry friend has only made it worse; when she is kicked out of her music class, her stern father ditches Hagen on the street. Tearing them apart sets both Lili and Hagen on different paths, but they’ll try to get back together – but not without some forks in the road along the way. While Lili tries reluctantly to put her pre-pet days behind her, Hagen is captured and trained to be a prize fighter in the ring with other damaged dogs.
This is a movie that has been crafted from other directors’ style books – namely Hitchcock and Spielberg – and fuses them into a joyful hybrid. The sequences that feature Hagen, which makes up the bulk of the run time, play as beautifully rendered silent cinema. These are the strongest parts of this Homeward Bound-inspired tale, as we are treated to a dogs’-eye view of the world; making new friends with other abandoned mongrels, he constantly escapes capture by cruel humans, and nabs meat from dingy kitchens. It is these moments that we become fully invested in; Hagen’s plight is, somehow, more relatable than the humans’.
But it’s in the movie’s final third that everything is ramped up to nearly surreal heights. Dozens of dogs, with Hagen as their leader, run amok; the city is shut down, and White God almost becomes a horror film akin to The Blob or Them!, in which ordinary citizens are put under threat by a terrible alien force. Except these aren’t aliens – they’re incredibly familiar. And remarkably, White God never gives into genre pastiche; there is always a beating heart, and the film never forgets its characters, even when things threaten to become out of control just like Hagen and his canine army.
White God is a remarkable little film; one that belies its own budgetary limits and goes for the epic magic-realism route than typical quirky drama. It’s in love with its influences, and wears them on its sleeve; in fact, it’s the reason it works so well. You might not be quite able to describe White God – but why would you want to even try?