Khadak (2006) by Peter Brosens and Jessica Hope Woodworth.
This is a strange co-production filmed in Mongolia during wintertime, a mixture of magic realism and environmental and social activism. The story is of an epileptic teenage boy who is a shepherd and lives with his grandparents out in the steppe. He has to move to the city and work in a coalmine because an alleged epidemic forces the authorities to take strict measures against the family’s sheep. His move is from home to strange surroundings, from shamans to doctors, from childhood to adult life, from a natural way of life to industrial settings, and so on, a long line of potentially devastating changes and challenges which he will face by learning to “use” his epileptic visions to become wiser and, of course, by falling in love with the girl who makes the most strange and powerful music ever. But in the meantime, the mental institutions are full of shepherds and our hero can still hear the voices of the animals that supposedly were all exterminated.
In order to describe the unique mood of this film, I would have to go on and on about the landscapes. If you don’t share my enthusiasm for vast, barren land of no particular color that melts into the sky without a perceivable horizon, then skip my ramblings about it. Despite of almost everything being dominated by shades of white (if white has shades at all) I do want to say the colors are the most amazing features of the landscapes here … all of them and none of them. Colors are hiding in plain sight. Except for the obviously symbolic sky blue ribbon, which appears as the symbol of openness and freedom first on the hero, then on the horse he wants to free in the desert, then on the freed sheep, then even on a solitary (and wondering tree). Khadak apparently means sky in Mongolian. Or maybe sky blue. If anyone knows for sure, live a note.
Colors also convey contrasting emotions. While at the beginning, on the wide open, almost empty landscape the colors felt like freedom and fresh air, the same colors that also dominate the urban landscape change into claustrophobic and mechanic and to some extent, they become dull. Sure, the closed spaces and dirty coalmines also contribute to create a contrast and set up the basic problem and conflict of the film, but the colors can remain the same and still feel more dull and suffocating. It is as if the colors themselves are displaces together with the main character any many other newcomers to the city, they are present as fake copies of themselves.
Scenes of magic realism first appear as epileptic visions then they gradually seem to take over the film.
Just as the other, later film, Altiplano (2009), this one also strongly contrasts traditional ways of life that are closer and in harmony with nature to industrial and environmental catastrophe and social injustice lurking around and disrupting the balance.
While not so prominent in this film, a tendency that was to become full-blown in Altiplano slightly disrupts the excellence of this film too. It portrays its central themes in clear-cut, black and white opposition. This feature will aggravate in Altiplano, set in the Peruvian Andes, which practically collapses in the end into sentimental tearjerker cliché symbolism. I like magic realism as much as the next guy (assuming the next guy likes it a lot) but without the preaching exaggerations that just seem to insist on putting already chewed food in the viewer’s mouth. Khadak does not yet do that, but almost. Nevertheless, it is a definite must see.
Tuya’s Marriage (Tuya de hun shi, 2006), by Quan’an Wang
This is a story of girl (woman) power at its best, literal sense. In the Mongolian grasslands where desert is fast taking over life depends on access to water. Tuya is a young shepherd woman with two kids whose husband became disabled while trying to dig a well. She is faced with a difficult decision: as the sole sustainer of her family and threatened by illness form overwork and exhaustion, it becomes clear that she needs a new husband. So she gets a divorce. Proposals start pouring in from all over the place, as she is not only young and pretty, but also known for her hard-work and decency. But Tuya has only one condition: whoever wants to marry her has to agree to live with and take care of her ex-husband to.
The film gently shifts between drama and comedy all the time. It is heartbreaking to see people struggle so much for mere existence but it is also heartwarming and full of hope the way their practical way of reasoning rules out all romantic clichés ad sentimentalisms.
Just like in Khadak, the scenery is incredible! It is almost crazy and touristy to find this cruel, empty, cold nothingness beautiful or even sublime, but I for one cannot help it. The sheer magnitude of the horizon and the magnificent contour of rocky mountains still manages to appear alive, just because of the people who struggle with this indifferent nature for survival. One can almost feel the dust in the air and the cold sunshine. Colors are mainly present in clothing, but it is abundantly, strikingly present there. Tuya’s scarves alone would suffice as a source of awe.
Except the beautiful actress who plays Tuya all other characters are local people who play themselves most authentically, especially Tuya’s sad, quiet husband and the neighbor eternally seeking to financially satisfy his eternally cheating wife.
Mongol (2007), by Sergey Bodrov
As the official story line goes: “The film recounts the early life of Genghis Khan who was a slave before going on to conquer half the world including Russia in 1206.” It is in fact a clearly fictitious and invented love-story, a Hollywood one for that matter. You know, “boy meets girl in childhood boy falls in love with girl and they grow up and get married and they cannot live happily ever after because there are lots of obstacles in their way (in this case evil others kidnapping, marrying, raping and impregnating girl over and over again) but they conquer them all because of course love conquers all…” kind of story. But visually stunning nevertheless! I still think most landscapes and colors were made on computers, and I don’t think I can ever be convinced otherwise. Another good feature of the film is Japanese actor Tadanobu Asano.