A beguiling drama laced with dry humour and lashings of spiritualism, Wang Quan’an’s Competition entry Öndög possesses a mysterious grandeur that should ensure it doesn’t leave the Berlinale empty-handed. Concerned with the mysteries surrounding life and death, Öndög opens with the discovery of a dead body and ends in coitus, with what initially feels like a bumbling police procedural metamorphosing into an existential Buddhist fable.
The body is discovered during a hypnotic tracking shot across the Mongolian steppes, as the headlights of a car illuminate the corpse of a naked woman. The police arrive, but their jeep isn’t equipped to transport the body, so they leave the youngest officer to guard it. The chief insists that he’s accompanied by a local herdswoman nicknamed ‘Dinosaur’ (Dulamjav Enkhtaivan) who arrives on camelback armed with a rifle to ward of inquisitive wolves. She refuses to stay with him, but promises to return once she’s completed some tasks.
In these early scenes, Wang observes Dinosaur as she herds sheep and prepares soup through long, leisurely takes of the windswept steppes that run the risk of losing the audience to the majesty of the Mongolian landscape. But there’s a calm efficiency to these movements that allows the narrative to be informed by its surroundings as much as the action that unfolds within them. When Dinosaur returns, she does so with a canteen and a bottle of vodka, and proceeds to give the young officer a lesson in the ways of courtship, teaching him to “pretend to be a wolf” when he meets a woman he likes and “stare at her as if you want to gobble her up”. She then proceeds to take his innocence in the first of the film’s two perversely droll sex scenes.
Creating a liminal space where dusk seems to endlessly bleed into dawn, and myths becomes inexplicably entwined with reality, Öndög is a film of contrasts; creating a landscape where the slaughtering of a lamb is naturally juxtaposed with the birth of calf. The following morning, once the body is removed, the film veers into more ruminative territory. More often than not, the discovery of a dead body is a portent of more trouble to come, but here it points towards new beginnings. As the police wait for the body to defrost so they can perform an autopsy, and the young cop puts his new flirting skills to the test by attempting to woo a female intern from Ulaanbaatar, Dinosaur discovers that she’s pregnant. She’s reclusive, and resourceful, so doesn’t tell the young man, instead accepting it as another chapter in the unstoppable cycle of life.
Filled with beautiful compositions and bathed in twilight blues, Wang communicates a deeply felt respect for the landscape. Shooting animals and husbandry in the same way he does actors, his characters are given minimal dialogue and often observed from a distance. From the rookie cop dancing to thrash metal on his cellphone whilst he guards the corpse, to Dinosaur smoking a cigarette at an abandoned bus stop beneath a stunningly turquoise sky, the metaphysical grandeur of the Mongolian plateau is ever-present. As day turns to night, characters seem to shift between different states of being, with Öndög occupying a realm where the boundaries between life and death are blurred and irrelevant.
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Patrick Gamble | @PatrickJGamble