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Left to His Own Devices


BFI London Film Festival


If Only I Could Hibernate (2024)

This was the first ever Mongolian movie to play in the official selection at the Cannes Film Festival, but would have been accepted from any nation. It's an assured and reassuring movie about the importance of education, while also being a fresh entry into the genre of movies about children being forced to raise themselves. Normally such movies are incredibly bleak no matter where in the world they're set, but despite the worrisome title this is not the case here. “If Only I Could Hibernate” is a remarkable testament to the power of the human spirit and the dogged ability of children to create a better life for themselves, if only they have a little help.

Ulzii (a remarkable Battsooj Uurtsaikh) is 14 and a smart kid, working well above his age level in math and science. He's polite and sensible, but most importantly unafraid of hard work which last summer got him his prize possession: a pair of Nikes. He has three younger siblings, Tungaa (Nominjiguur Tsend) and Erkhemee (Tulguldur Batsaikhan) who are about 11 and 10, and the 4-year-old Garig (Batmandakh Batchuluun). They live with their mother, Demberel (Ganchimeg Sandagdorj), in a wired-for-electricity yurt in an obviously poor section of Ulaanbaatar. Their late father relocated the family to the city to get the kids access to schools, but Demberel can neither cope with her grief nor the literacy requirements to get a city job. In a rare moment of sobriety, she makes a decision: She's going to send Garig to relatives and take the others back to her village where she can get farmwork. But Ulzii is so good at physics he’s on track to win a scholarship to the nation's best school, from where universities anywhere in the world would be open to him. So he says no, they are not going. She can leave if she wants but he, Tungaa and Erkhemee are staying in school.

So they stay. Demberel gives Ulzii the bank card to access the child welfare payments; and he's responsible with it. The main issue is the relentless cold which makes coal for the fire a necessity. Ulzii develops a good line in filching wood or tires when they don’t have the resources for safer fuel. The younger siblings wrap themselves in their duvets, do their homework or play cards and don't whine, except when Erkhemee gets the cough that prompts the titular complaint. Any kid who’s been trapped in an unpleasant childhood has made the same wish, to wake up one day as an adult able to take care of yourself. Erkhemee’s illness needs medicine that costs 35,000 tugrugs (about 10 dollars or eight pounds), which is so expensive for them Ulzii must buy it day by day instead of dropping that sum all at once. When Tungaa takes the initiative to sell bracelets she made in the market Ulzii gets upset; he’s the responsible one and by trying to help she’s showing him up. But Tungaa is practical: They need all the help they can get.

Adults around know the kids are on their own, but that’s their problem. Fortunately the neighbors next door, an elderly sister (Sukhee Lodonchuluun) and the equally elder brother who recently moved in with her (Davaasamba Sharaw) keep an eye out. The old man is not adjusting well to city life and is more than happy to provide Ulzii odd jobs in return for a hot meal. Demberel keeps in touch by phone with plenty of reasons why she can’t send money, so when one of Ulzii's friends offers illegal and dangerous work paid cash in hand Ulzii takes it. This risks the tutoring arrangement he has with his kind but troubled teacher (Batzorig Sukhbaatar) and therefore also risks the scholarship. But the scholarship will only help tomorrow. Who's going to heat the yurt and feed the kids today? The scenes of Ulzii in school or at the academic competitions, surrounded by children with obviously easier home lives, are remarkable in how stoically he moves through them. He’s still very much one of the kids but being good at your homework doesn't pay for dinner; and it’s hard to make yourself vulnerable to even the most sympathetic adults by asking for help. Demberel’s kids want their mother to take care of them; and it’s awful for all of them that she’s not equal to the task.

Writer-director Zoljargal Purevdash somehow made a fraught subject feel hopeful, as if there are better opportunities waiting just around the corner. Perhaps it’s the optimism of childhood, or the upsetting realization all the siblings have had that they are better placed to cope with the world than their mother is. Ulzii's intelligence is a great piece of luck but so is his willingness to work hard without complaint; and the contrast between him and his less-bright friends is quietly made (one could call this a high-school “Good Will Hunting”). Mr. Uurtsaikh is exceptional at conveying Ulzii’s thoughts and ethos through body language and facial expressions; and it’s unusual to realize how likable someone is through that kind of physical acting alone.

Davaanyam Delgerjargal's cinematography makes clever use of the cold cityscape and the busy confines of the yurt; and the music (which includes local hip-hop) integrates Western rock stylings with occasional throat singing and other sounds which represent Mongolian music to the West. There's no one here who wants less than the best for these kids, but life isn't easy and sometimes help comes with a price not worth paying. But the resolve with which Ulzii faces all his problems, at home and in school, means that you can enjoy the film in confidence there will be something like a happy ending. The final shot, of Tungaa and Erkhemee giggling with pride as Ulzii feeds the stove, is the best part of childhood all in one image. They know they are going to do better than the adults around them, that they won’t fall into the same traps and make the same mistakes. The difference with “If Only I Could Hibernate” is that, for once, that might actually be true.


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