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VENICE 2023 Orizzonti

Review: City of Wind


- VENICE 2023: Lkhagvadulam Purev-Ochir impresses with her debut feature, which investigates what happens to the souls of young people in Ulaanbaatar, the Mongolian capital

Review: City of Wind
Tergel Bold-Erdene (left) in City of Wind

Growing up is hard to do wherever you are. But recognising the specific circumstances present at the threshold between childhood and adulthood allows us to look beyond clichés and to acknowledge in full the violence of that most decisive time of life. In City of Wind [+see also:
film profile
, the debut feature from Mongolian director Lkhagvadulam Purev-Ochir, the stakes are no higher for the protagonist Ze (Tergel Bold-Erdene) than they are for any other 17-year-old, but we are given to feel them as intensely as if our own destinies were hanging in the balance. 

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It would be mistaken to assume from this description that the film, premiering in the Orizzonti section at the Venice Film Festival, is in any way sentimental. On the contrary: one of the reasons we care so much is Purev-Ochir’s bluntly honest, completely frank portrayal of Ze’s life and its contradictions, though it may not seem so matter-of-fact at first. We begin in a tent, watching a male figure dressed in traditional attire and wearing a mask that covers his face, as he talks in a guttural voice to an old man. The latter is here to seek advice from the spirit, asking him for help dealing with an alcoholic son. The camera slowly scans the faces of all present, and we cannot help but scrutinise them for any sign of disbelief. But there is none, and we can soon feel ourselves taken in by the power of this ritual, too. Before the feeling can fully take hold, however, the ceremony ends, and the mask comes off: underneath the costume was not an adult but a young boy of seventeen, Ze, looking no more mystical than anyone else assembled there. 

The co-existence of cold, hard facts and mysticism is the central dynamic of the film, the tension behind all of the convulsions in Ze’s story. But this theme isn’t made manifest with any more heavy-handedness than in that opening scene. Purev-Ochir maintains a firm but delicate hand over her film, letting the characters rather than any directorial flourishes guide it where it needs to go. 

Indeed, the question of spirituality vs. pure rationality involves the question of power, and the story charts Ze’s handling (and yielding) of his own agency and control. At the beginning of the film, he is an obedient student and son, working hard at school and during the shamanic ceremonies that involve his entire family. When it comes to this work, all behave like colleagues discussing business — yet the mother, for example, frequently makes offerings of milk or tea, asking the spirits to protect her loved ones. Though the family get paid for their service, they cannot easily be dismissed as liars or hypocrites. 

It’s an uneasy balance that crumbles when Ze meets Maralaa (Nomin-Erdene Ariunbyamba), a girl his age due for a heart surgery and forced by her mother to take part in a shamanic ceremony. When the camera scrutinises her face, we do see doubt — even incredulity. She confronts Ze, and to his great confusion, the young man has wet dreams about her the following night. 

Ze may be a shaman, but he is also a normal boy, and Purev-Ochir excels at showing the different stages of romance between him and Maralaa without either under- or over-stating the depth of their teenage love. Their joy lies in simple things, like hanging out at the mall or dyeing their hair together. When they try having sex for the first time and it doesn’t work out perfectly, they can laugh about it. They are modern kids — but Ze has trouble being a modern boy. On the one hand, seeing him loosen up, stand up to bullyish teachers, and simply enjoy himself in a way he never had before, it is clear that he is experiencing a kind of happiness that was unknown to him until then. Questioning all authorities and expectations for the first time, he grows up right in front of our eyes. On the other hand, he can feel that his faith, his spirit, is disturbed by all this irreverent fun. He cannot have fun dancing at the club, and when he sees that his family and his neighbourhood, in the more rural outskirts of Ulaanbaatar, are struggling in his absence, he feels at least partly responsible. 

By centering Ze’s crisis of conscience, Purev-Ochir takes seriously the challenges not just surrounding his faith, but also those that concern all children coming of age. What really matters to you? What kind of life do you want to live? Based on what values? It’s a conundrum that might be particularly intense in Ulaanbaatar, portrayed in the film as a ruthless city where students are only valued for their potential to become CEOs. But few are the places today that do not treat their children the same.  

City of Wind was produced by Aurora Films (France), Uma Pedra no Sapato (Portugal), Volya Films (The Netherlands), 27 Films Production (Germany), Guru Media (Mongolia), and VOO by Mobinet (Mongolia). International sales are handled by Best Friend Forever

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