Quite an unusual film, Bat-Amgalam Lkhagvajav’s feature debut lingers somewhere between the music film (not musical though) and the drama, all the while highlighting life in Ulaanbataar, which could not be more different than the steppe settings usually associated with Mongolian cinema.
Od and his band have made it with a hit that everybody in Ulaanbataar recognizes. Despite their success however, Od experiences a continuous sense of discomfort that soon turns into depression. In his effort to change something in his life, he takes a job as a translator, where he meets Gegee, a girl that also deals with music, playing for her mother’s ballroom dance lessons. The two of them decide to play together, and soon their relationship becomes something more than a friendship, to the disgruntlement of their boss, who is constantly flirting with Gegee. Od, however, is still not well, and his psychological situation soon takes a toll on both the girl and his band.
Lkhagvajav directs a film that focuses on the depression youths experience, which mostly derives from the lack of knowledge (guidance one could say) regarding what they want to do with their lives. This aspect is presented through Od, and on a secondary level, through his flat mate, and extends to his relationship with Gegee and the members of his band. Furthermore, the film also deals with themes of power abuse in the working environment, the relationship of Mongolia with the foreigners on a political and financial level, tradition and modernity, and the relationship of musicians with their fans.
These elements, however, including the central one, are presented in epidermic fashion, since particularly the secondary ones are mostly depicted in one or two scenes, and with a relative naivety, which seems to dominate the whole narrative, while the fact that the two protagonists, Dulguun Bayasgalan as Od and Nomin-Erdene Munkhbat as Gegee, are musicians and not trained actors, also adds to this sense.
The “miracle” of Lkhagvajav’s direction however, is that he manages to present a film that is really enjoyable to watch, particularly through the use of music, both of the protagonists’ and through a rather interesting exploration of Ulaanbataar ‘s music scene, in an element that elevates the movie to a much higher level than the rest of the narrative suggests.
The same applies to the depiction of the city, whose presentation is stripped almost completely from any kind of exotification, and is instead highlighted as a modern setting, much like the western urban centers. In this effort, Lkhagvajav benefits the most from the cinematography of Ian Allardyce, who presents a number of images that highlight the beauty of the city, particularly the panoramic ones. The use of light is a bit excessive, something that also applies to the overpolished production, but again, these are not enough to fault the film significantly. Lkhagvajav’s editing retains a medium pace that suits the aesthetics of the movie quite nicely.
“They Sing Up On The Hill” has its faults, but it definitely manages to get under the skin of its viewer, and definitely deserves a watch, particularly from those that enjoy their movies filled with music, who are almost sure to leave its screening with a smile on their face.