Entrancing looking and lushly scored magical-realist fable “Khadak” tracks a young nomad as he discovers his destiny as a shaman in vaguely contempo Mongolia. First feature collaboration between Belgian Peter Brosens (maker of the “Mongolia Trilogy” docus) and American Jessica Woodworth (helmer of “The Virgin Diaries”) beads together complex ideas and gorgeously wrought segments like pearls on a string, but, with its emblematic characters and sometimes baffling, mystical storyline, pic ultimately remains emotionally distant. Further fest bookings look definite, with very niche outings through boutique distribs possible. Cult following as an ancillary item could develop.
As another harsh winter begins, nomadic shepherd Bagi (Batzul Khayankhyarvaa) cares for his flock of sheep, goats and cattle. He has an almost supernatural skill at finding lost animals out on the arid steppes where he lives in a yurt with his grandfather (Damchaa Banzar) and mother (Dugarsuren Dagvadorj).
When Bagi has an epileptic fit and goes into a semi-comatose state, the local femme shaman (Tserendarizav Dashnyam) is called in to treat him by entering his dream world to wake him up. She warns his grandfather that Bagi is resisting his destiny to become a shaman himself.
Suddenly, a convoy of army trucks arrives. Surgically masked men and soldiers tell the family there is a livestock plague, so they must forsake their yurt and animals to come live in the city where they’ll be given jobs. Bagi ties a blue scarf with religious significance (known in Mongolian as a “khadak,” hence title) around his favorite horse and bids it a tearful farewell.
Rest of pic becomes a picaresque journey as Bagi meets a beautiful performer-cum-coal thief named Zolzaya (non-pro thesp Tsetsegee Byamba) and has further adventures in Mongolia’s eerie townships and even a parallel future world.
Trained anthropologist Brosens and former journalist Woodworth infuse script with political references to Mongolia’s past as a Soviet satellite state and its problems today as it shifts from agriculture to industrial capitalism.
Filmmakers deep regard for the Mongolian culture and folklore is manifestly evident. And yet pic has a more European than Central Asian flavor, particularly when it comes to the Philip Glass-y/Michael Nyman-ish score, supervised by Michel Schoepping (also pic’s sound designer), an intricate and often beautiful soundscape of Western and Eastern instruments blended together, reworking repetitious musical phrases and themes.
Likewise, lensing by Lithuanian Rimvydas Leipus (helmer Sharunas Bartas’ regular d.p.), with its abundant use of wide-angles and crisp coloration, smacks of the studied formalism of Euro arthouse fare — not that it isn’t stunning to look at. It helps that Mongolia’s landscape, where pic was entirely shot, is so relentlessly photogenic, while interiors are rendered with authenticity by Mongolian-born, German based production designer Agi Dawaachu.