Review: White Flag
- With his sophomore feature, Swiss-Mongolian filmmaker Batbayar Chogsom sheds light on the marginalisation of queerness in Mongolia
Five years after his feature debut, Out of Paradise [+see also:
film profile], won the Best Film Award at the Shanghai International Film Festival in 2018, Swiss-Mongolian writer-director Batbayar Chogsom has returned with a new film. His sophomore feature, White Flag [+see also:
interview: Batbayar Chogsom
film profile], has had its world premiere in the main competition of the Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival.
White Flag starts with an extreme wide shot of a man chasing after a woman on an otherwise empty steppe, vaguely evoking the opening sequence of Nikita Mikhalkov’s Golden Lion-winning Territory of Love (1991). When city detective Zorig (Samdanpurev Oyunsambuu) arrives in a rural town to investigate the recent disappearance of a local man, two young herdswomen who live together quickly become his prime suspects. Naran (Urtnasan Erdenebayar) and Saran (Erdenetsetseg Enkhbayar), whose names mean “sun” and “moon”, respectively, pretend to be sisters, but their intimate relationship is soon made clear. As Zorig starts frequenting their ger (which is different from a yurt), it becomes increasingly unclear whether his visits are professional or personal.
The intriguing plot setting and the promising establishing shot making great use of negative space really pique the viewer’s interest, which Batbayar, unfortunately, lets slip through his fingers fairly early on. (The director is referred to by his first name, owing to the specific Mongolian use of patronymics.)
Yukio Elien Lanz’s ethnic instrumental score proves competent overall, except during a few outdoor scenes. The latter consist mostly of wide tracking shots, which unhurriedly follow the characters on horseback or on a motorcycle, and static, long takes, exhibiting livestock grazing on and birds flying over dusty, near-barren land. Such an expansive setting, captured by Lukas Graf’s stunning if somewhat schematic camerawork, seems to accentuate the flaws in the script, such as the blunt introductions to, and muddled motivations of, the protagonists. Interspersed within the present-day story are flashbacks, in which city scenes are juxtaposed with countryside calmness, as was also done in Out of Paradise, revealing why Naran cannot conceive a child and hates the city. In the present, the two women’s goal is to have a child, but their method of doing so is as confusing as Naran’s baffling reaction to a certain key distressing event later in the film.
What are meant to be moments of intimacy between Naran and Saran come off as either hackneyed, such as a scene where the two tickle each other, or contrived, such as when they take a bath together in a carefully orchestrated sequence of movements: dropping a deel on the floor in a ground-level shot and stepping into a tiny bath together at the same time while facing each other.
In Batbayar’s movies, infidelity seems to be a through line. If the protagonist of Out of Paradise spending the night with a sex worker while his pregnant wife is alone in labour was perplexing, there are not one, not two, but three characters that have an affair in White Flag. Although underserved by such idiosyncrasies in the script, Urtnasan and Erdenetsetseg show their potential for a more versatile performance.
While Batbayar’s intention to shed light on the marginalisation of queerness in Mongolia by making the country’s very first queer feature is laudable, White Flag could have benefited from a defter and more delicate approach.
White Flag is a Mongolian-Swiss-Japanese production staged by Chogsom Film and Monkeyspice Inc.
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