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.