Out of Paradise (Batbayar Chogsom, 2018)

Out of Paradise posterThe world moves very differently from one place to another. While cities across the world may be basically the same everywhere, a more ancient way of life may still be very much in existence the further you travel from them. For a young couple at the centre of Mongolian drama Out of Paradise, their otherwise happy nomadic existence is overshadowed by the difficultly they face in accessing modern medical care. Finding they have little choice other than to travel to the city, they discover that modernity brings with it costs as well as gains.

Dorj (Bayarsaikhan Bayartsengel) and Suren (Enerel Tumen) have been married for some time and live nomadically farming sheep. Though they are blissfully happy in each other’s company, they share a private sadness in that they have already lost two pregnancies to miscarriage and have been unable to start a family. Suren is currently heavily pregnant and the couple are understandably anxious, especially as a local doctor expresses concern over Suren’s continuing high blood pressure. They decide that this time they have no other option than to travel to the city and have the baby under expert medical care, but travelling costs money which is something they do not have. A bartered sheep buys them passage, but on arrival at the hospital they discover that they’re missing vital paperwork and will need to pay for treatment upfront.

Well suited and generally happy, the strain of coping with their shared anxiety over the baby has inevitably paced a strain on the couple’s relationship. Irritated by Dorj’s attitude, the man who’s agreed to drive them to the city takes Suren aside to ask if he’s always like this to which Suren sadly replies that he wasn’t until after they lost the baby. Angry and afraid, resentful of feeling so helpless, Dorj lashes out without thinking, eventually fighting with their driver and smashing his phone when Suren expresses concern that he is being overfamiliar and may have been spying on her in private moments – all of which maybe understandable but not particularly prudent seeing as they are otherwise marooned in the middle of the desert if he should decide to leave them or the car run into trouble.

Nevertheless, the trouble with the driver is only the first of many incidents which will occur on their journey to the city which prove that modern is living is not like that on the Steppe. Pulled off the road along the way, the couple find themselves welcomed into a wedding party but having to give up their sheep as a wedding gift (as is the custom), yet they also receive hospitality from the other nomads who share their celebratory food and drink without a second thought. When they arrive in the city there is not so much fellow feeling and money is the only thing that matters. The couple become separated as Suren stays in the hospital while Dorj heads out to pawn her gold earrings – a precious wedding gift, in the hope of raising enough money for the treatment.

“Some people have bad luck and others good”, a cynical taxi driver (Adiyabaatar Rina) whom we later discover to be a violent pimp tells a confused Dorj when he asks him where he might be able to report the loss of his wallet. Dorj’s city odyssey begins with losing one of the precious earrings and being rebuffed by a hard-nosed pawnbroker before decamping to a bar where he attempts to drown his sorrows but is comforted by a melancholy sex worker who takes pity on him after hearing his story. Managing to win his money through the ultramodern medium of a karaoke contest where he turns off the machine and sings a mournful folksong, Dorj then finds himself once again at the mercy of the city and discovering that is it hostile and unwelcoming.

Yet the world Dorj finds himself in is one filled with people much like himself, struggling against their powerlessness and fighting back against an unforgiving environment. He is tempted away from his goodness through desperation but manages to hold on to himself while worrying about his wife and family. Dorj’s resilience eventually reawakens something within the melancholy sex worker who finds herself misused by her oppressive pimp (himself fighting back against the futility of his existence by pointlessly threatening a landlord over a malfunctioning lift), unable to prevent him from targeting Dorj but wanting to anyway and vowing to free herself from his control.

The problems which Dorj and Suren face are universal – poverty, inequality, and the pettiness which accompanies them in an increasingly depersonalised society. Dorj may feel inferior in not quite understanding how to use a mobile phone, growing still more resentful towards his friend’s seemingly stable and middle-class city life and his own relative lack of sophistication but the pair are happy with their nomadic existence and have no particular desire to jump into the modern world. Nevertheless, there are aspects of modernity which are useful such as learning to drive which mark a concession towards the encroachment of something new. Tested to an extreme by the demands of a changing world, Dorj and Suren are able to save their love and repair their family both in spite of and thanks to urban civilisation but ultimately choose to return to the simple paradise of their traditional way of life.


Out of Paradise screens as part of the eighth season of Chicago’s Asian Pop-Up Cinema at AMC River East 21 on March 19, 7pm.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

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