You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Berlin Film Review: ‘Öndög’

Wang Quan'an
Dulamjav Enkhtaivan, Aorigeletu, Norovsambuu Batmunkh, Gangtemuer Arild. (Mongolian dialogue)

1 hour 37 minutes

At the end of Wang Quan’an’s enchanting seventh feature, a droll title appears: “Based on True Stories.” It’s amusing because it’s unnecessary; this is the kind of cinema that makes its stories true in the telling of them, taking eccentric, cyclical, real life — calf births and lamb slaughters — and losslessly transforming it into drama. Starring a cast of first-timers of unfakable authenticity and a series of stunning, streaked Mongolian skies, “Öndög” (meaning “egg”) is an art-house proposition for sure, but within those rarefied confines deserves exposure as vast as the majestic steppe backdrop, against which its sweet, slow-burn strangeness sends up a column of smoke that can be seen for miles.

Marking Wang’s fourth appearance in the Berlin competition, “Öndög” also marks a welcome return to the intimacy (and brevity) of his Mongolia-set 2007 Golden Bear winner “Tuya’s Marriage” after 2011’s more epic but less successful literary adaptation “White Deer Plain.” And coincidentally, it finds the director competing against fellow Chinese Golden Bear recipient Zhang Yimou, in what could, at a stretch, be billed as a face-off between China’s most revered Fifth Generation filmmaker and Wang, something of an outlier from its Sixth.

The offbeat tone is established early as two offscreen voices casually shoot the breeze, while, aside from the infinitesimally graduated dusk-blue horizon, all that’s visible is a few feet of grass and scrub in front of a bouncing Jeep’s front fender. Just as we’re lulled into the rhythm of a long, uneventful car journey, the wonky arc of the headlamps illuminates a dreamlike horror: the body of a naked woman, lying in the middle of all this nowhere, unmistakably dead. The car lurches back like an animal rearing in fright.

It is a police vehicle that has happened on this crime, and so the scene seems set for a rural murder mystery with ethnographic flourishes, a “39 Steppes” perhaps, or a brooding, Ceylan-esque “Once Upon a Time in Mongolia.” But Wang’s interest lies less with the mysteries of death than of life, and so the crime is “solved” offscreen, while we stay in the dark with the 18-year-old rookie (Norovsambuu Batmunkh) left to keep watch over the body. He is not entirely abandoned to the lowering temperatures and the circling wolves: A colleague wraps a scarf around his neck, and a herdswoman on camelback (Dulamjav Enkhtaivan), who’s handy with her rifle, is drafted in to help him out.

Nicknamed “Dinosaur,” the solitary woman has business to attend to — the herding of her animals, the killing of a sheep for meat, the contemplative smoking of a cigarette — but eventually she returns and over a canteen of freshly-slaughtered-lamb soup and a bottle of hooch, huddled against the flank of her disdainful-looking camel, a drunken, companionable seduction occurs. This is despite the persistent devotion of a herdsman (Aorigeletu) who stops by to help Dinosaur whenever she calls, and the pretty young intern back at the police station, on whom the police officer has a crush. It’s so bitterly windy out here that it can be tricky to get your cigarette lit, but the torches carried by its lovelorn characters never go out.

Even those for whom the storytelling is just too slow will have to admit that “Öndög” is a rapturous portfolio piece for Beijing-based French cinematographer Aymerick Pilarski. In laconic long takes, often placed far away from the swaddled-up characters, Pilarski always finds a surprising frame: a gargantuan sky with the merest sliver of land beneath; a liquid sunset that spills like lava across the plain; or a fumbling sex scene that becomes an abstraction of panting shapes lit only by LED flashlights.

But then, there’s so much that is surprising here, not least the nonjudgmental attitude toward sex and the undisguised admiration for Dinosaur, a woman living contentedly alone 100 kilometers from her nearest neighbor. We might expect a place of such tribal ancientness to be less than progressive, but “Öndög” is built on the unexpected, often absurd collision between tradition and modernity: a satellite dish balanced against the side of Dinosaur’s yurt; the young officer keeping boredom at bay by dancing to tinny music from his cellphone, waving its little screen over the body in the dark while Elvis croons; and, against another of those vanishing horizons, the herdswoman painstakingly undoing her quilted layers to urinate delicately onto the plastic wand of a home pregnancy test.

The film is largely conveyed through far-away images of novice actors given little dialogue and few closeups, yet somehow we come to know the shape of every character’s heart. All the gorgeous twilights, newborn calves, and dead bodies aside, this is ultimately a wise little folktale about how to love someone is to set them free, and then to shelter the flickering flame of hope from the slicing wind until they come back to you.

Berlin Film Review: 'Öndög'

Reviewed at Berlin Film Festival (competing), Feb. 7, 2019. Running time: 97 MIN.

Production: (Mongolia) A Light Arts Films, New Theatre Union, Landi Studios, Mogo Film Labs production. (Int'l sales: Arclight, Los Angeles.) Producer: Wang Quan'an. Co-Producers: Ji Wenwen, Ruan Xiao, Wang Changrui, Chang Wenxian, Jeancy Xu Jingchun, Executive producers: Byambatsogt Dashnyam, Ying Ye, Yuan Hui.

Crew: Director, screenplay: Wang Quan'an. Camera (color, widescreen): Aymerick Pilarski. Editor: Wang Quan'an, Yang Wenjian.

With: Dulamjav Enkhtaivan, Aorigeletu, Norovsambuu Batmunkh, Gangtemuer Arild. (Mongolian dialogue)

More Film

  • 'Death Stranding' is a 'Playground of

    'Death Stranding' is a 'Playground of Possibilities,' Will Make You Cry

    The Thursday evening conversation between game-making auteur Hideo Kojima and “Walking Dead” actor Norman Reedus about highly-anticipated PlayStation 4 game “Death Stranding” was filled with interesting anecdotes, but little in the way of hard fact. Instead, Kojima made a promise of sorts to the audience and seemingly fans everywhere waiting for more news on the [...]

  • Trailer for Cannes Directors’ Fortnight Entry

    Watch: Trailer for Cannes Directors’ Fortnight Entry ‘Song Without a Name’ (EXCLUSIVE)

    MADRID — Peru’s La Vida Misma and Paris-based sales agent Luxbox have dropped the first trailer and poster of Melina Leon’s “Canción sin nombre” (“Song Without a Name”), selected this week for the Cannes Festival’s Directors’ Fortnight. Written by Leon and Michael J. White, “Song Without a Name” sums up some of ambitions and focus [...]

  • 'Aladdin,' 'Pokemon: Detective Pikachu,' 'Shaft' Set

    'Aladdin,' 'Pokemon: Detective Pikachu,' 'Shaft' Set for China Debuts

    Disney’s new live-action “Aladdin” will release in China on May 24, day-and-date with North America, giving the studio a run of three films in Chinese theaters as many months.  Two other Hollywood titles will also hit the big screen in the Middle Kingdom in the coming months: “Pokemon: Detective Pikachu” on May 10 and the [...]

  • Patrimonio

    Film Review: 'Patrimonio'

    Though it never really went away on much of the globe, a sort of creeping feudalism is making such a striking comeback — with the ever-more-fabulously-rich squeezing the poor of every dime and resource — that Lisa F. Jackson and Sarah Teale’s documentary “Patrimonio” feels like a frightening portent. Will such crude appropriations of land [...]

  • Fan Bingbing

    Fan Bingbing Starts to Re-Emerge Months After Tax Scandal

    Half a year after she was found guilty of tax fraud and disappeared from the public eye, Chinese superstar Fan Bingbing has begun to signal her comeback, attending a gala event and launching her own beauty product on social media this week. The 37-year-old actress unexpectedly hit the red carpet in Beijing on Monday at [...]

  • I Trapped the Devil

    Film Review: 'I Trapped the Devil'

    “I Trapped the Devil” sounds like the title of a sermon or gospel song, but it’s a very literal-minded statement coming from the mouth of a leading character in writer-director Josh Lobo’s debut feature. This being a horror film, there’s a chance he’s even literally correct, rather than simply mad. A mixed-bag frightfest, IFC’s limited [...]

  • American Factory

    Tribeca Film Review: 'American Factory'

    When the last truck rolled off the assembly line of the General Motors factory outside Dayton, Ohio, filmmakers Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert were there to film it, documenting the end of a certain American dream, along with the unemployment of more than 2,000 people — down from 6,000 in more prosperous times. That was [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content