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A Hard Case to Crack

BFI London Film Festival 2019

Öndög (2019)

This Mongolian movie has some interesting points to make about survival on the steppes but does so over the body of its lead actresses. Perhaps it’s realistic, and sometimes it's hilarious. But mostly it’s unsettling – which is almost certainly the point.

When the naked body of a woman is discovered in the literal middle of nowhere, the police leave their youngest recruit (Norovsambuu Batmunkh) alone overnight to guard it. They put a sheet over the body, hand him an extra scarf and some binoculars and go – but not without telling the local herdswoman (Dulamjav Enkhtaivan) that in the circumstances her help is required. First she goes home and calls her friend (D. Aorigeletu) to help her slaughter a lamb. Then she loads up her camel and finds the young policeman, who has been dancing around to Elvis songs on this phone in order to keep warm. She builds a fire near the corpse, feeds him soup and vodka, and teaches him a little bit about life. It goes so well even the camel has an opinion about it.

Aymeric Pilarski, the director of photography, does a wonderful job of conveying both the overwhelming sense of space on the undeveloped steppe and also the ordinary lives being eked out in this emptiness. There are still motorbikes and cigarettes, autopsy tables and accordions. There are the animals the herdswoman must look after – and the movie is not for the squeamish, there’s a calving scene as well as the slaughter of the lamb. There’s also the murderer, handcuffed to a radiator, squatting in silence in the hallway of the police station. There are wolves. There is also the body of the murder victim, and the body of the herdswoman as well, about which everyone seems to have an opinion.

The title is the Mongolian word for a fossilized dinosaur egg, and so the metaphor makes itself obvious. It would have been kinder if the writer-director Wang Quan’an has either been as blunt about male bodies as he is about female ones, but it would not, perhaps, feel so realistic. The parallels between the women in the film are left unexplored, which is more frustrating than the completely gratuitous nudity. It’s a bleak and lonely life out there in the middle of nowhere, especially if you’re a woman. Warmth and kindness must be sought at every opportunity, and the little lambs must be kept in out of the cold. But a better movie would have had a beating heart at its center, not just something turned to stone.


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