Filmed on location amid the spectacular scenery of the Mongolian steppes, China’s competition entry in Montreal’s World Film Festival proves to be a solid entry. Comparisons will be made to Nikita Mikhalkov’s “Urga,” which unfolded in similar territory, but that was a more complex film than this quite simple story of love and loss. Nevertheless, the very simplicity of Xie Fei’s film is its great strength, and festivals should seek out this beautifully made pic by the director who scored a modest success with his “Women of the Lake of Scented Souls.”
An old woman, Nai Nai, who lives a lonely, traditional life in a tent somewhere in the grasslands and who ekes out a tough living as a shepherd, lives with her orphaned granddaughter, Somiya. She willingly accepts responsibility for a little boy whose mother is dead and whose father can’t care for him; she calls the boy Bayingbulag.
The children grow up as brother and sister, learning how to survive the blistering summers and frigid winters on the steppes. They can’t afford a horse, but, as chance would have it, an orphaned foal staggers into their camp one wintry night; it becomes Bayinbulag’s horse. The boy gets a basic education but not the girl, for whom education is considered unnecessary.
Eventually, Bayinbulag’s father writes to order him to the city to study to be a veterinarian; before he leaves, he promises to marry Somiya when he returns. He’s away three years, having also studied music, and is excited about the prospect of marriage, only to discover that his sweetheart has been made pregnant by a local stud. Distraught, he takes off and doesn’t return for 12 years.
By the time he comes back, he’s a celebrated folk singer, the grandmother is long dead, and Somiya is married to a drunken husband and has four sons plus a 12-year-old illegitimate daughter who longs for a father. Some of the film’s most affecting scenes are between Bayinbulag and this little girl, who was, in a sense, the cause of his unhappiness.
The Mongolian actors give beautifully natural performances (unfortunately, the fine actress who plays the grandmother wasn’t listed in the press book provided). Tengger, who plays Bayinbulag, and who is a well-known singer, also composed the film’s stirring music score, much of which is folk ballads.
Pic depicts the harsh life of the steppes during the four seasons, but city scenes are completely avoided. Though this is basically lightweight fare, it’s attractive enough to please audiences interested in exploring a still remote part of the world, and some scenes toward the end are extremely moving.
Production credits are all first-class.