This year’s Un Certain Regard sidebar of the Cannes Film Festival gifted the international audience with a small hidden gem, Zoljargal Purevdash’s debut feature If Only I Could Hibernate. A Mongolian-French co-production, this new coming-of-age drama is mostly set in the Yurt district, one of the poorest areas of Ulaanbataar.
The film opens with a pounding score boasting Mongolian throat singing before it introduces us to the protagonist, Ulzii (Battsooj Uurtsaikh), a teenager who lives in poverty but is determined to win a science competition in order to gain a generous scholarship. Ulzii is a strong-willed and motivated boy who dreams of having a better life, but his plans are thwarted when, one day, his mother finds a job in the countryside and leaves him alone with his brother and sister in the middle of the harsh Mongolian winter. Ulzii then ends up wandering around at night looking for things he can heat for himself and his siblings, all while studying hard for the upcoming competition.
Ulzii is forced to act like an adult and play the part of father (and mother) too soon, and Uurtsaikh imbues his role with the right dose of anger, disillusionment, and maturity. He gets at Ulzii’s core with ease; inside, he’s still a kid who enjoys playing video games, hanging out with his friends, and occasionally acting out, just like any other boy his age.
One of the scenes that best describes Ulzii is also a very short one. In it, he rapidly looks at a world map hanging on a wall and reads the names of some of the most prestigious universities like Harvard, MIT, and Nagoya. Its staging is simple and modest, yet telling and powerful.
More broadly, the whole picture is balanced and never ends up being too sappy, melodramatic, or obvious. Many films of the genre produced in the West tend to hyperfocus on certain aspects of being a teen: bullying and the ensuing rebellion, or else love, sex, and physicality. But here, Purevdash’s writing and direction are sincere and straight to the point. After all, when your character’s primary needs are literally heating and eating, there’s very little time to involve him in anything else. The story thus zooms in on the value of sacrifice and how, despite living in a discouraging environment, motivation and passion can be driving forces to move ahead.
Purevdash’s overall grounded artistic approach is also reflected by some of the key aesthetic choices present throughout the film. For example, the score, courtesy of Johanni Curtet, skilfully merges the old and the new as it is made of an incredibly effective mix of hip hop, beatbox, and Mongolian throat singing. This choice may be interpreted as a musical accompaniment depicting the generational clash or, more likely, as a metaphor for Ulzii’s constant lingering between the rural (where he stands) and the urban (where he wishes to be).
The story thus zooms in on the value of sacrifice and how, despite living in a discouraging environment, motivation and passion can be driving forces to move ahead.
The cinematography lensed by Davaanyam Delgerjargal feels just as grounded as it opts for grain instead of gloss. It’s successful at creating a contrast between the harshness and dimness of the outskirts, and the brightness and cleanliness of the school grounds. Here, the school and Ulzii’s teacher – the only person who seems to believe in the boy’s future and potential – somehow embody an “intermediate” stage, one that the boy needs to access in order to enter a comfortable adult life and later get a well-paying job abroad. This perception of the school as a bridge to wealth emerges in a crystal-clear fashion during one of the student’s brief exchanges with his professor. “Why does a great teacher like you works in a school in the province?” Ulzii asks. “Why not?” answers the teacher.
Without spoiling anything, it should be known that the last third of the feature is solid and rewarding, and it adds further depth to the exploration of Ulziii’s character and his tormented soul. A clash between his dreams and reality will occur, with unexpected consequences.
All in all, If Only I Could Hibernate is an excellent programming choice for this specific section of the festival, famously known to project some of the fresher and more forward-looking films in the lineup. Defying Western cliches present in many a coming-of-age drama, Purevdash’s first outing is backed by a script that doesn’t take too-obvious turns and avoids any form of sugarcoating. It is a palatable film for lovers of world cinema and arthouse films, but it is also linear and fast-paced enough to attract a wider, mainstream audience.
It’s safe to predict that If Only I Could Hibernate will become a fast favorite not just within the festival circuit but around the world as well.
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