What’s that sweeping out of the grassy plains of Mongolia? Golden Hordes? A race of Khans? No, it’s the return of Italian neo-realism. Part of the first wave of films made without Russian control, this stark study of a hardscrabble urchin recalls Rossellini in his postwar phase — and that may be fitting, considering the remote nation’s starting-over status.
Moscow-trained helmer N. Uranchimeg’s first effort has the gritty, bombed-out look of “Germany: Year Zero,” but she’s not immune to lyrical touches a la “The 400 Blows” in this downbeat saga of a sensitive lad forced onto the mean streets of Ulan Bator and into a life of crime. Toguldur (S. Gombo-Ochir) wants to do good, but his physical adeptness has him roped (the Mongolian title also means “Bondage”) into a gang of thieves who depend on the wiry lad to climb into high-rise windows and then let them in to smirk and snaffle the occupants’ samovars and such.
Why these hoods are so mesmerizing is never explained, and it doesn’t help when the soundtrack jumps from evocative string music to sci-fi organ swirls whenever they appear. Still, these silly missteps don’t hinder the warmth of crisply lensed scenes with an aged farmer (N. Tsegmid) who takes the boy under his grizzled wing, if only temporarily.
This central metaphor — for an orphaned land that seeks its faded Buddhist soul — isn’t hammered home.
The ending is undeniably a downer, though, whether “Shackles” is parable or straight retro-drama; only the most specialized exhibs will want to unchain it.