People come, people go, nothing ever happens, but there’s drama between the lines — that’s life on the ever-expanding Mongolian desert in the occasionally touching, arty Korean/French co-production “Desert Dream,” helmed by Chinese director Zhang Lu. Though a little too insistent on its own importance, pic is an engaging drama supported by a refreshing humanitarianism. Deliberate pacing will keep this firmly planted in the fest circuit, though French coin is likely to increase possibility of some arthouse niche play in Europe.
Story begins with Hungai (Bat-ulzii) planting trees on the desolate Mongolian steppes in an effort to fight off the encroaching desert. Seemingly unconcerned by his wife’s indifference or his daughter’s increasing hearing problems, Hungai singlemindedly continues with his tree vocation. Unable to wait any longer, his wife takes their daughter to the nearest city for a hospital checkup.
As soon as one woman leaves with her child, another arrives. North Korean Choi Soon-hee (Seo Jung) and her rather impudent son Chang-ho (Shin Dong-ho) are escapees from their homeland, following a well-worn trail of political refugees through Mongolia. Tired and hungry, they ask for a place to stay overnight. While Hungai can’t understand their language, the plight of mother and son is immediately apparent to him. Soon-hee is willing to leave the next morning, but the boy insists on staying with their benefactor. Mother and son slot right into Hungai’s daily rural routine.
Hungai shows no external signs of missing his wife or daughter and his affection for his “new family” is confined, initially, to buying Soon-hee a cap and Chang-ho some crayons. Man and boy bond despite their linguistic barriers. Much later, Hungai makes a clumsy sexual advance toward Soon-hee; in reply, the North Korean woman grabs Hungai’s knife and (offscreen) slaughters a sheep that she then drops at Hungai’s feet. Implication is clear: Try it again and you’ll be next.
Slow pace makes the film seem longer than its two-plus hours. Helmer repeatedly employs slow pans either left or right to reveal an observer or a reaction shot or … sometimes not very much at all. This is all build-up to the final shot, which is designed to have auds scratching their heads wondering, “How did they do that?”
Before that final moment arrives, effect is in turns unintentionally amusing and tedious. Deliberately unsteady but otherwise good-quality lensing may be intended to create a docu feel, but is redundant given the obvious authenticity of the locations. Main thesps are all professionals, but never too obviously so, as all perfs seem completely and genuinely spontaneous. Tech credits are pro.
Soundtrack is provided mainly by the hurtling winds of the steppes, but several of the characters sing traditional folk songs.