Right from the start “Öndög” is a strange little film full of paradoxes and red herrings. It is the first Mongolian entry in the competition of Berlinale, but its director, Wang Quan’an is a renown Chinese sixth generation auteur who already has a couple of Berlinale Bears in his collection. For “Tuya’s Marriage” (2006) he was rewarded with the Golden Bear paired with the prize of Ecumenical Jury, while he got his Silver Bear for the script of “Apart Together” (2010). “Öndög” is his fourth film with a world premiere at the competition of the aforementioned festival, but this time, sadly, it did not win
“Öndög” opens with a shot of Mongolian steppe from an analogue, 35mm camera attached to the front of a moving vehicle. While it goes not so gently over the sun-bleached grass, we can overhear the conversation between the two people on board and a hunting story that would perfectly serve as a warning for the rest of the film: usually nothing is what it seems to be at first place. The jovial conversation is interrupted by a discovery of a naked dead body of a young woman and we realize that the car is actually a police jeep patrolling the unpopulated area.
It seems that we have an artsy riff on a police procedural with a young rookie officer (Norovsambuu) being left in charge of the corpse until the transportation is arranged. Since it would be overnight, and the wolves who frequent the area are not scared by the service pistols, the help is enlisted in the form of a lonesome older camel-riding herdswoman nicknamed Dinosaur (Dulamjav Enkhtaivan) who will, armed with her riffle and a bottle of liquor, guard the policeman who must guard the dead body. The night goes on and an awkward romance ensues…
Eventually the whole police procedural thing turns out to be merely a decoy, since the whole murder mystery is solved off-screen and Öndög takes the course of a slow, often meditative exploration of existence and the everyday rituals on the edges of civilization, with the two protagonist going their own ways after an encounter that will change their lives forever. It would be easy to reach out for “exoticism” of sorts and rely on borderline offensive stereotypes about life in a place like that, and that would probably go well with the film festival audiences, but Wang as a filmmaker is too clever to go for the easy solutions.
Still, there are some traces of exoticism in his admiration to the nature, animals and husbandry, his dedication to some of the so-called slow cinema conventions, such as the extended use of long, wide static shots in which blue skies and yellowish ground dominate the image, making human figures disappear in the landscape and his tendency to connect the dots by the means of philosophy and mysticism. But also there are often humorous contacts of the whole setting with the modern and contemporary world, like a bus stop in the middle of nowhere and smartphones used more or less as music players.
Visually, “Öndög” is one of the most astonishing films at this year’s early stage on festival circuit, due to the perfect camerawork by the Beijing-based French cinematographer Aymerick Pilarski, who opts for a distinctive 35mm granulation that gives the film some additional warmth early on and it stays with us even when Wang shifts his style from wide and static shots from afar to closer ones with some fluid camera movement. The choice of location and the non-professional cast also contribute to the feeling of authenticity.
However, “Öndög” is sometimes uneven and Wang’s stream of thoughts is occasionally elusive and hard to follow since there are quite a few dots to be connected, which makes it a bit of a demanding watch. But for its beauty, unique insight and the “highs”, it is easy to sit through the “lows” and the bumps along the way. The good thing is that it gets better and better in the eyes of a viewer as the time passes by.