Though its title suggests a sweeping historical epic, “The Two Horses of Genghis Khan” actually refers to a Mongolian folk song whose lyrics are mostly lost today. Still stunning on its more intimate terms, the latest docu-fiction hybrid from director Byambasuren Davaa feels more overtly manipulated than earlier films “The Story of the Weeping Camel” and “The Cave of the Yellow Dog” as it follows musician Urna Chahar-Tugchi’s journey across Mongolia to recover the missing verses and perform the song in Ulan Bator. Davaa’s shift from animal to human characters shows progress but will make pic trickier to market worldwide.
As “Two Horses” opens, audiences may not even realize they are watching a work of nonfiction, since Davaa captures Urna’s arrival in the Mongolian capital with camera setups that would be right at home in a scripted film. Urna hails from Inner Mongolia, a region still controlled by China and especially hard-hit during the Cultural Revolution, which suppressed minority customs by outlawing folk singing and other traditions.
It was during this time that Urna’s grandmother broke apart her cherished horse head violin, preserving the beautifully carved head and neck. Years later, she passed the heirloom on to Urna, who promised to restore the instrument and play the song in her ancestors’ honor.
This backstory is merely told, rather than reenacted, with the narrative starting in big-city Ulan Bator. There, Urna meets the violin ensemble with whom she hopes to fulfill her pledge. Given Davaa’s unique approach to documentary, it’s unclear whether Urna has already achieved her goal at this point, though Davaa frames the story as if her musical detective work is just beginning.
Before setting off on her search, Urna brings the violin fragment to Hicheengui Sambuu, an artisan who specializes in making instruments in the old style. In an especially touching scene, we see Hicheengui select the tree whose wood he will use, apologizing to the earth mother before chopping it down.
Up to this point, the film feels quite Western in its style, despite its many culturally specific details, but as Urna leaves the modern world to travel back to the Mongolian steppe, the structure becomes more draggy and episodic, substituting progress in the plot for amusing or memorable encounters along the way.
On a hilltop with no cell reception, Urna must toss her phone into the air to send a text message. She samples curd cheese from yurt-dwellers and discusses sodium cyanide poisoning in a region exploited by mining, quizzing anyone conceivably old enough to remember the “Two Horses” lyrics about the song.
Finally, at what seems like the end of the earth, Urna’s quest achieves heartbreaking closure. Rather than bring auds back to Ulan Bator for an indoor performance, Davaa shows Urna singing against the Mongolian landscape — footage corny enough for a Celine Dion video and yet remarkably powerful in this context.
Pic delivers impressive production values, especially notable in contrast with a number of other rurally set, handheld-shot Mongolian docus, offering a gorgeous record of this still little-seen region.