Monday, February 19, 2007

I’m obviously a sucker for Mongolian movies. One of my favorite films ever is Urga, which was distributed in the United States under the hokey & inappropriate title of Close to Eden.¹ Nikita Makalkov’s 1991 film tells the tale of a Russian truck driver whose vehicle breaks down in Mongolia and who is half-rescued, half-adopted by a nomadic Mongolian family that is on something of an epic quest. If you ask the women, the quest is for birth control in the form of condoms so that they won’t have such difficult lives, but if you ask the men the quest is for a TV set. By film’s end, the women have what they want and the men have rigged up a makeshift antenna that allows them to watch Rambo and the press conferences of George H.W. Bush. One of the many amazing scenes in this film comes when the group finally reaches a city, presumably Ulan Bator, and they find their way to a Mongolian rock-&-roll club.

Genghis Blues is the 1999 documentary of a San Francisco street musician, the late Paul Peña, who manages not only to learn Tuvan throat singing, the deep music in which the singer literally sings two notes at once, but gets invited to Tuva, the Russian province immediately north of Mongolia, for a bi-annual throat-singing festival & contest, where he actually wins an award. To make this improbable but true story even stranger, a key figure in all of this is the late physicist Richard Feynman, who as one of the world’s leading scientists parlayed a childhood interest in stamps – he had one from Tuva back during the brief period when it was an independent nation prior to Soviet consolidation of its indigenous peoples that showed a race between hot air balloons and camels – into an exploration of a country that had disappeared. His foundation to this day sponsors cultural exchange activities between the U.S. and Tuva. One result: Genghis Blues has some of the best music ever put on film.

cao di is a 2005 film by the Chinese director Ning Hao that tells the tale of three boys, roughly age 7, who live with a nomadic group which is starting to show signs of setting down roots, building yurts out of brick & attempting (with no success) to construct a windmill. Krishna found this gem at Blockbuster where it’s being distributed under the title of Mongolian Ping Pong. At least, unlike what happened to Close to Eden, the English title has some relation to the film itself.

The three boys, Bilike, Dawa & Erguotou, discover a ping pong ball floating down the little spaghetti-thin curlicue of a river that runs by their clan’s settlement. Although these erstwhile nomads are far more modernized and westernized than the group in Urga – they have TV, t-shirts, Dawa wears a baseball cap while Erguotou zooms around the steppes on a small scooter, plus there are bottles & jars visible in the background in their yurts – the boys have no clue what this round object might be. Much prodding, holding it up against the light of the sky and licking it convinces them that it can’t be an egg, so that it must be a glowing pearl. They consult with a local lama, but since he’s only ten, he doesn’t have much more in the way of worldly experience. Later, the trio learn almost by accident that it is a ping pong ball – they don’t know what that means exactly & their informant says simply that it’s the “national game” – which leaves them with a further mystery. They have, they believe, “the national ball,” which they deduce must be a treasure. So it must be returned.

Interestingly, given that Mongolia is a sovereign nation, the boys decide that “the capital” to which they must return the ball is Beijing.² A good portion of the rest of the movie consists of their trek, literally attempting to cross the Gobi Desert with nothing more than two horses & a scooter, some stolen moon cake & a couple of bottles of water. No matter that the Gobi Desert is in the wrong direction in the first place.

There are other plots surrounding this central tale – the father’s attempt to modernize their living quarters (his mother’s complaint about the brick yurt is that it’s “square and uncomfortable”), an oldest daughter’s desire to join an ethnic dancing troupe that would require her to move to the unnamed city (it appears to be far too small to be Ulan Bator). By the time the film is over the children have been rescued, the father has traded the TV for a pair of goats, the girl is heading into the city to join her troupe and Bilike accompanies her in order to attend school. In the city, he sees things he never imagined, about which I cannot say more here.

Two things for me really made this film fascinating. First is just watching how much this version of nomadic life had modernized from the Russian portrayal of 14 years earlier – one can sense the slow encroachment of globalization at the deepest level of people’s lives, such as the sister’s application of lipstick for her audition with the troupe.

The other was the photography by Du Jie. This is the most static motion picture I have ever seen – the camera, with surprisingly few exceptions, takes a position and if the action wanders off-screen, it doesn’t move to follow it. Scenes at night are shot with no illumination. Often the characters are at a middle distance with the panorama of the Mongolian steppes or grass fields & barren tundra of the Gobi stretching out behind them. Scene after scene opens out onto breath-taking vistas with no comment whatsoever from the characters. Only one actually feels gratuitous, a late scene that captures the whole of a rainbow. Visually, this is one of the most beautiful motion pictures I’ve ever seen. But what’s most interesting is how the static nature of the camera work insinuates a cognitive, even narrative frame around the story itself. Looking deliberately primitive & implying a lack of sophistication without ever saying as much, the film suggests an inner landscape for the clan. At the same time, the film reverses some (western?) sexual stereotypes: the father is supportive of his daughter’s wish to join the troupe, and it’s the mothers here who are presented as brutal & cruel.

All three of these motion pictures are filmed by outsiders – tho there has been Mongolian cinema since the 1930s, the one true Mongolian-made film I’ve ever seen is The Story of the Weeping Camel – and it’s easy to see both in Urga and cao di a wish to portray Mongolians as some variant of “noble savages.” But what separates both of these films from simply racist fare like The Gods Must Be Crazy is that the confrontation with the modern world, which in some form or other sets the action going in each, is framed precisely in terms of what impacts the outer world is having on the nomadic group. The clan isn’t running away from technology – it’s Bilike’s father who wants someone to build him his dream of a windmill – but it’s skeptical in what it appropriates. When they stop getting decent reception from their TV, it has less value than two goats.


¹ Urga literally is the original name of the Mongolian capital Ulan Bator.

² This is consistent with thinking of ping pong as the “national” game, which it may be in China, while the most popular sport in Mongolia proper is wrestling.