Öndög (恐龙蛋, Wang Quan’an, 2019)

Öndög posterLife and death lie side by side in Wang Quan’an’s existential drama Öndög (恐龙蛋). Taking its name from that of a fossilised dinosaur egg, Wang’s Mongolian odyssey locates itself in a kind of perpetual, unchanging dreamspace where nothing is quite as it first seems. We think we’re here to solve a mystery, a unexpected death evidenced by an abandoned body, but what we witness is a rebirth, a woman returning to life after wilful isolation not weakened by love but perhaps fulfilled by it.

Wang opens with a lengthy sequence of two men driving through the desert and telling tales of huntsmen, who they say must hunt by instinct because the human eye is not as good a guide as good old fashioned intuition. You might think you see a wolf in the distance, but draw closer and it’s just a big grey dog. When the car’s lights illuminate a fallen body, one might initially think it to be one of the horses just seen rushing past but is in fact that of a young woman, naked and abandoned to the desert. As someone later puts it, if no one had found her she would have been returned to the earth, grass would grow over her, sheep would eat the grass, and men would eat the sheep. Now that the body has been discovered, however, it’s a problem for the local police, not exactly used to murder in the middle of the desert. Because they don’t have the proper resources and have to call for backup, they leave a young rookie (the only member of the team with no wife and family) to guard the body overnight, recruiting a local herdswoman to guard him.

The police, apparently, would rather have had a male herdsman but there aren’t any, so this middle-aged, camel riding, rifle toting, and almost totally self sufficient woman will have to do because she’s all there is. Known as the Dinosaur, the woman is perhaps the last of her kind, but acts with an almost maternal warmth towards the inexperienced policeman, reminding him to pull the flaps down on his hat to keep his ears warm, but also making fun of his obvious distress at being left alone (well, except for the wolves) in the desert with a dead body.

Later she returns and teaches him something else with that dead body still in the background. She asks him if he’s ever been in love. He says he hasn’t, too nervous. She tells him what he needs to do is forget that he’s a human, pretend to be a wolf, stare at her as if you want to gobble her up. Truth be told, it’s slightly dangerous advice, even if she later adds that he needs to stare in a loving way after he complains that he doesn’t want his potential love interest to be afraid of him, but soon enough a belly full of liquor to ward off the cold and an animal pelt seem to have done the trick and solved two problems to mutual satisfaction (in one sense at least).

The kid tries out his new found animal magnetism on the pretty intern from the city but remains somewhat nervous and permanently between the corpse and the killer while his boss serenades his crush outside. The woman died because she rejected a man who wanted her on the grounds she loved someone else. To counter that, the older policeman tells his own sad story, that he discovered his wife in fact married him on the rebound. The herdswoman, meanwhile, muses on her strange relationship with a motorbike-riding male friend, apparently a former lover from whom she separated after losing two children they conceived together. He would like to try again, she remains unconvinced despite his urgings that she needs to get herself a man and settle down. Though largely self-sufficient, she calls on him twice – first for death (butchering a sheep to feed the rookie policeman), and then for life (birthing a reluctant calf). He gives to her the Öndög of the title, reminding her that the Americans found the first dinosaur skeletons here in Mongolia, and so in a sense they are all descendants of dinosaurs, and will be succeeded by something else.

The extinct egg nevertheless carries life, in a spiritual sense at least, a perfect embodiment of beginning and end or, perhaps, frozen potential. Maybe the dinosaurs won’t die out after all, or at least, not just yet. From death comes life, and from life death. Set against the dreamlike eternity of the desert night sky, Öndög is the story of a woman hunting by instinct, finding fresh hope in new possibility and old love in an otherwise desolate landscape.


Öndög was screened as part of the 2019 BFI London Film Festival.

Festival trailer (dialogue free)

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)