Without breaking new ground in the subgenre of hymns to traditional life in Inner Mongolia, ethnic helmer Hasichaolu capably pays respect in “Urtin duu.” Centered on a grieving singer returning to the desert after losing the will to perform in Beijing, earthy yarn closely observes the interdependence of animals and humans in the sparsely populated region and quietly espies the encroachment of modernization. Though the protag’s limited emotional bandwidth is a drawback, a wealth of striking scenery and colorful customs makes this perfectly acceptable fare for fests and specialized tube outlets.
Title refers to an ancient folk-singing form that uses guttural vocal gymnastics to tell long and often highly emotional stories. While the sound of urtin duu won’t be music to all ears, it’s bound to raise a few goosebumps once lead thesp and famous performer Alatan Qiqige breaks into song.
Sailing rather too close to the widely seen “The Story of the Weeping Camel” (2003), narrative establishes with a similar life-and-death dynamic involving a musical performer and a baby camel. Four-legged part of the equation is orphaned soon after being delivered by Erji (Da Xima), an old herdswoman living on the desert’s edge with her sick husband (Wujili Deligeer). Without a willing surrogate mother — a rare find — the newborn appears doomed.
Meanwhile in Beijing, Qiqige (Qiqige, lending her name and biographical basics), a stocky, middle-aged professional urtin duu singer, is playing to dwindling crowds and quarreling with husband Batu (Aori Gele), the son of Erji. Following an argument over money, Batu is fatally hit by a car in front of Qiqige.
Losing her singing voice in the shock and unable to tell Erji, Qiqige snaps out of a near-suicidal slump when visions of Batu prompt her to deliver the news personally. Eventful road trip includes a lively detour to a wedding with as many toasts to Genghis Khan as to the couple, and a poignant overnight stop at a new industrial town in the middle of nowhere. From a window, Qiqige watches a cheesy rock band and garishly dressed “traditional dancers” murdering Mongolian music.
Her occasional voiceover helps to some extent, but the central character’s resolutely stolid demeanor keeps auds at arm’s length until, deep into the proceedings, she arrives at Erji’s yurt and starts getting her groove back by tending the weeping camel. While there is never any doubt about outcomes for both, the latter sections give auds an authentic look at the day-to-day workings of a remote community where mutual support is crucial to survival.
Pick of the largely non-pro cast is spritely oldster Da Xima, Qiqige’s real life mother, whose expressive face says it all about life’s hardships in this dot on the map.
Quality lensing captures all the harsh beauty of the locations and gets up close and personal in docu-like segs set in tiny yurts packed with people. Rest of technical work is pro.