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.

Popular on Variety

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

  • Amanda

    ‘Amanda’ Takes Home Best Int’l Film at 15th Sanfic

    SANTIAGO, Chile    French director Mikhael Hers’ “Amanda” scooped up the Best Int’l Film award Saturday (Aug. 24) at the 15th Santiago Int’l Film Fest (Sanfic), which reported a 20% audience uptick in the past two years and continues to grow its reputation as the most vibrant and prominent film festival in Latin America’s Southern [...]

  • disney d23

    Cruella, Kit Harington and Black Panther's Return: Everything We Learned at D23 Day Two

    Not to be outdone by the avalanche of series orders and casting announcements bolstering the new streaming series Disney Plus, Walt Disney Studios showed off its film wares in a marathon presentation at D23 on Saturday. The Anaheim, Calif. expo brought star power, if perhaps fewer surprises than Friday’s presentation, as fans in princess and [...]

  • Harvey Weinstein, Katie Holmes, Taylor Swift'The

    Taylor Swift Downplays Association With Harvey Weinstein

    Taylor Swift’s association with disgraced movie mogul Harvey Weinstein was among the topics the singer addressed in a revealing new interview with The Guardian. Weinstein held producer credits for the movies “One Chance” and “The Giver,” both of which featured Swift — in the former, a song, and in the latter, a supporting role. She [...]

  • Breaking Bad Movie

    'Breaking Bad' Movie: Watch the First Teaser for 'El Camino'

    In case you hadn’t heard, Emmy-winning drama “Breaking Bad” is cooking up a movie sequel. On Saturday, after details of Netflix’s project quietly leaked online, the streaming giant issued the first teaser for “El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie,” which will be released on October 11. More Reviews Album Review: Jay Som's 'Anak Ko' Album [...]

  • Samara Weaving and Adam Brody Big

    'Ready or Not': That Time Samara Weaving Hit Andie MacDowell in the Face

    Samara Weaving didn’t mean to hurt Andie MacDowell, but she did just that while they were rehearsing for their new horror dark comedy “Ready or Not.” “I hit Andie MacDowell in the face by accident,” Weaving says on this week’s episode of “The Big Ticket,” Variety and iHeart’s movie podcast. “It was horrible. It was [...]

  • Aracne

    Chile’s Sanfic, Mexico’s Morbido Fest Pact to Promote Latino Horror (EXCLUSIVE)

    Mexican horror festival Morbido and Chile’s Santiago Intl. Film Festival (Sanfic) have agreed on a long-term collaboration intended to strengthen the genre film industry in Chile and across Latin America. This partnership will see Morbido representatives attend the Sanfic industry section each year to aid in the promotion of horror projects and advise those projects [...]

  • Tom Holland'Spider-Man: Homecoming' film premiere, Arrivals,

    Tom Holland Addresses Spider-Man’s Studio Divorce at D23: ‘I Love You 3000’

    British actor Tom Holland showed face on the main stage at D23 on Saturday, in the thick of an ugly studio battle over the rights to his iconic Marvel character Spider-Man. Headlines have been rolling in for days about the contentious battle for the cinematic future of the hero, after Sony Pictures became unwilling to [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content