If Wind River were crossed with Love With the Proper Stranger, the result would be something akin to Öndög, Wang Quan’an’s gorgeous, meditative police drama turned romantic comedy based on real events. What starts as a murder case on Mongolia’s isolated steppes evolves into life-affirming, often humorous love stories set against this harsh climate. Moments of whimsy pepper the life-and-death drama as an untried 18-year-old police officer is left to guard a corpse and an experienced herdswoman is left to guard him.
The film’s first quarter is almost entirely wide shots, with closeups working their way in as themes become more intimate. Some shots are almost entirely sky, with only a thin sliver of open plains with humans, animals, and vehicles wandering slowly across the vast expanse. Due to this stunning distance, characterisations emerge slowly, with few words but a captivating lack of performativity. Diegetic sound contributes to this atmosphere – the wind through the grass, wild and domesticated animals wandering the plains, and pop music from a cell phone in one especially joyous sequence create an unselfconscious backdrop for deceptively meaningful interactions.
While both nameless lead characters’ arcs take their time to come to fruition, they reach fulfilling, if pleasantly untidy, conclusions – unfortunately a few false endings dampen the eventual satisfaction. The protagonists’ separate and gendered consequences for their night standing guard just about side-steps the (cinematic and real) issue of men using women as emotional crutches; thankfully the herdswoman’s plot eventually forms the film’s emotional centre.
Öndög’s title refers to a fossilised dinosaur egg – a whimsical, idiosyncratic image that captures the ancientness of the steppe and the heart and humour of those who survive there. The film is an ode to human connections, however fleeting those may be, and to odd charm of imperfect lives.
CAST: Dulamjav Enkhtaivan, Aorigeletu, Norovsambuu Batmunkh, Gangtemuer Arild
DIRECTOR: Wang Quan’an
WRITER: Wang Quan’an
SYNOPSIS: After a body is found on the Mongolian steppes, an inexperienced policeman is assigned to guard it and a solitary herder is assigned to guard him.