Mongolian cinema, much like the country itself, is often overlooked, misunderstood, or worse, exoticized. Lkhagvadulam Purev-Ochir’s films, however, have been changing this status quo. Her shorts “Mountain Cat” (2020) and “Snow in September” (2022) became the first Mongolian films ever in the official selections at Cannes and Venice, respectively. This year, she returned to the Lido with her debut feature City of Wind, a poetic yet sobering portrait of Ulaanbaatar and its youth.
True to its title, the film’s establishing shot shows a ger district enveloped in smog with the sound of a gusty breeze in the background. Inside one ger among them, a shaman reminds an older man kneeling in front of him to “be tranquil” in a deep guttural voice. From the looks of those sitting on a bed behind them, it seems that there are quite a lot of people who believe in and rely on the shaman. Precisely because of this, it comes as a genuine surprise when behind his headdress and mask there emerges a teenage boy.
This is Ze (Tergel Bold-Erdene), a timid 17-year-old shaman and straight-A 12th grader who minds his own business but also carries responsibilities for his family and community. But after meeting Maralaa (Nomin-Erdene Ariunbyamba), a girl with a heart disease who accuses him of being a “con artist,” Ze’s life takes an unexpected turn. The strong chemistry between the two lead performers helps make their initial tension, later interaction, and Ze’s fast-paced character transformation more believable. The heavy focus on the two main characters, however, inevitably reduces others, such as Ze’s friend, into a rather cursory role.
The dialogue and body language of Ze and Maralaa are marked by humor, warmth, and realistic youthfulness, epitomized by a scene in which they draw each other on a bridge. Ze, who teaches others to “be tranquil” falls in love for the first time and thus cannot be what he preaches. He plays truant, goes clubbing, and, in one blink-and-you-miss-it scene, fist bumps “Genghis Khan.” Tergel’s faint smile and slightly furrowed eyebrows mirror his character’s modest, humorous personality and changing moods. The first-time actor’s subtle yet expressive performance won him the Orizzonti Award for Best Actor at the Venice Film Festival.
The protagonist being a shaman certainly helps City of Wind stand out from a crowd of coming-of-age stories on screen. But the film shows that spirituality is different from religion in a simple yet effective manner. The prophecies of Ze and his Grandpa Spirit are hit-and-miss and whether Lkhagvadulam believes in shamanism is neither clear nor important. Religious practices often become a part of secular culture and everyday life over a long period of time. Three scenes in which different characters offer milk (tea) to nature convey the truth that Mongolians are generally spiritual people, regardless of religious faith.
More importantly, Lkhagvadulam illustrates that tradition and modernity are not necessarily antithetical through her characters’ beliefs and words. They can and, in fact, do co-exist in contemporary Mongolia, evident in the lived realities of locals as well as their physical surroundings. Maralaa wants to move to the countryside but this does not mean herding livestock; Ze dreams of living in a smart apartment downtown but this does not mean he is materialistic or a “con artist.”
“Lkhagvadulam illustrates that tradition and modernity are not necessarily antithetical through her characters’ beliefs and words.”
Problems plaguing the country, such as alcoholism and liver cancer, find a brief expression in the film, but the audiovisual presentation of air pollution and reckless urban planning proves more interesting and effective. Vasco Viana’s wandering camera, as if driven by the wind, and Benjamin Silverstre’s soft tunes that mimic ambient sounds of nature eloquently pair, rather than contrast, with Matthieu Taponier’s sudden cuts. Given this combination, it is breathtakingly beautiful yet profoundly depressing to see via a slow pan the concrete jungle that is Ulaanbaatar’s downtown, surrounded by sprawling ger districts with looming mountains in the back, all blanketed by gray hues of toxic smoke.
As was the case with her two short films – which won the top awards at Busan, Toronto, and Venice Orizzonti – Lkhagvadulam makes skillful use of subtlety and ambiguity in her direction. In important moments throughout the film, multiple actions unfold at the same time, both on- and off-screen. Look no further for an example than the early scenes of Oyu, Ze’s older sister and interpreter of his prophecies. The film’s last two shots and their connection are as poignant as they are equivocal. Rather than being puzzled, however, a viewer who has been invested in Ze and Maralaa’s story for over 100 minutes is more likely to be left gazing open-mouthed as the credits begin to roll.
Recently honored with the Roberto Rossellini award for best director at Jia Zhangke’s Pingyao International Film Festival in China, Lkhagvadulam proves herself to be a unique voice in contemporary world cinema with this heartwarming yet also heartbreaking story of a 17-year-old shaman.
Read our exclusive interview with director Lkhagvadulam Purev-Ochir here.