Black Milk (Schwarze Milch, Uisenma Borchu, 2020)

“She doesn’t offend on purpose, she doesn’t know the custom.” an awkward friend of the heroine of Uisenma Borchu’s Black Milk (Schwarze Milch) offers in her defence. “Then she doesn’t belong with us” comes the rather cold reply. Borchu’s semi-autobiographical drama, the director herself left Mongolia at the age of four and was raised in Germany, on one level explores a sense of cultural dislocation and yearning for wholeness but also uncovers the persistent othering of the female existence as the pair of estranged sisters struggle with their awkward bond and conflicting visions of womanhood only to find themselves finally united if in despair and heartbreak. 

Wessi (Uisenma Borchu) is perhaps so estranged from the culture of her birth that her German husband (Franz Rogowski), seemingly abusive, remarks that he’s not even sure her sister really exists and wishes she would “forget about Mongolia” angrily shutting off a record of a retro Mongolian hit. He tells her that she cannot leave, that she is a coward, and that in the end she belongs to him. Leave she does, however, returning to the Steppe apparently in search of something though it is not clear exactly what. In any case though her sister accepts her warmly the hospitality may in a sense be superficial of the kind on which the nomad way of life depends. As Ossi (Gunsmaa Tsogzol) later remarks, it’s bad luck to bar the door. 

Many things are bad luck for Ossi, chief among them harming animals as she explains to Wessi revealing that from time to time snakes do indeed slither inside the yurt. Nevertheless, she earns her living through farming, and despite the tenderness with which she treats a sheep wounded by a wolf, part of her survival depends on harming them. As we eventually witness the traditional methods of slaughter are quite literally visceral if less bloody than expected. Ossi gingerly rescues a fly drowning in her milk, yet in contrast city-raised Wessi appears much less sentimental about the concept of life and death or the natural confluence between the two. 

In this she is perhaps much more masculine than her sister, continually resentful of the overt patriarchy of the nomadic world which tells Ossi it is improper for a woman to tend to the slaughter and she must wait for her husband’s return. Yet Ossi resents her for her urban airs and graces, continuing to behave as a guest barely helping out, dressing in her Western fashions and even pausing in front of a mirror to ask which shade of lipstick suits her best in a clear indication of their differing views of idealised femininity. She rejects her tendency to superiority, claiming an agency that Wessi perhaps is still in search of in insisting that she doesn’t need her, or anyone else, to tell her what she should and shouldn’t do among her own people. 

Likewise, Wessi found herself crushed by a husband who appeared to be cruel and possessive while openly challenging Ossi’s apparently “lonely” marriage to a feckless man who spends his time drinking with other men leaving all the work to her. This may be, in a sense, a dereliction of duty in unwisely leaving his wife alone on the Steppe vulnerable to ill-intentioned passersby while obliged to offer them hospitality full in the knowledge they may take advantage of it. “I’ll kill you if you make trouble and don’t obey” just such an intruder later sneers having thrown Ossi out of her own home to attempt to assault her sister. Wessie meanwhile adopts the attitude of a woman possessed, spinning him a tale of terror pregnant with symbolism as she insists that her breasts run black with milk as if he’d pay for his misuse of her. Yet there’s something in her self-possessed control of her sexuality that alarms her sister, a dangerous transgression in a society defined by male power. 

As the film opens we see Wessi roughly taken by her boorish husband, facedown and impassive while he mounts her from behind ironically mirroring the actions of a rejected stallion among Ossi’s herd. Comparatively less inhibited, she makes no secret of her unfulfilled desire sharing her fantasies with her sometimes scandalised sister though her attraction to an older man Ossi describes as a “freak” and a loner eventually provokes a challenge to the social order, the potentiality of the relationship somehow a taboo even as he becomes a source of masculine strength otherwise turned to by women letdown by their own menfolk. Yet despite their differences the sisters eventually find solace in one another, the pregnant Ossi wrapping her blanket around them both as they look out alone at the desolate terrain, united in shared despair and the knowledge that mutual solidarity is perhaps all they have. 


Black Milk screened as part of the 2021 Osaka Asian Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

I, the Sunshine (Би Нар, Janchivdorj Sengedorj, 2019)

Childhood nostalgia and the changing Mongolian society come together in Janchivdorj Sengedorj’s triptych of warmhearted children’s stories, I, The Sunshine (Би Нар, Bi Nar). Set between the Steppe and the city and around 30 years apart, Janchivdorj Sengedorj’s three tales aren’t so much about idealising a traditional way of life or denigrating the increasingly digitised, modern society but emphasising that children are often resourceful and determined and above all mean well, while people are sunshine and have a duty to bring love to one another. 

Narrated by the hero of the final tale, Ideree (J. Irmuun), the first concerns his father, Bodi (U. Itgel), who grew up in a small village on the Steppe and later became an engineer because of the events he is about to convey to us though Ideree isn’t entirely sure he believes the stories his dad has told him. In any case, this one is about modernity coming to the village in the form of a television. Previously, the entire community had to cram into the back of a pickup truck and head to the Soum Centre to watch the latest instalment of the TV soap on which they are all hooked, but Bodi’s dad has returned from the city with a set of his own much to the consternation of his wife who feels he ought to have spent the money on a ger for his oldest son soon to return from the military. Unfortunately, however, no one has quite grasped how TV works and being set so low they can’t receive a signal. It being the summer holidays Bodi and his friends are determined to figure out how to get the TV working, firstly by asking their bored physics teacher who is busy with experiments of his own and sends them away with a diagram explaining how an antenna works, and then by pilfering all the metallic objects in their village including grandma’s big pan to build an amplifier. 

Though the tale takes place in, presumably, the 1980s, the kids are charmingly innocent not even knowing how to open the ring pull on a can of Pepsi and so excited to try it that they eventually bash a hole in the top with a nail. They are all desperate to leave the village for the bright lights and sophistication of the city but the older Bodi (B. Bayanmunkh) will later suggest sending his son back to the country to learn to be a real Mongolian man riding horses and herding sheep. Meanwhile, the village is in a mood of celebration as a former resident who graduated high school and went on to university is currently running for public office. It’s figuring out the TV problem that leads Bodi to want to become an engineer, certain that when you work hard at something it is possible to succeed. 

Meanwhile, Ideree’s mother Nandin (L. Shinezul) is reluctantly learning to become a contortionist with the circus in the city. Her childhood is less happy than Bodi’s mostly because her mother, formerly a contortionist herself, has encountered some kind of accident and now uses a wheelchair while her father has gone to the US in search of work and a possible cure. Having got her place because another girl was injured, Nandin struggles to get along with her new teammates while secretly reluctant to practice because the circus atmosphere reminds her of happier times. Nevertheless through interacting with the other girls and realising that her melancholy sense of abandonment has been mistaken she eventually rediscovers her calling as a contortionist instructing her son that not everyone is blessed with a natural talent but if you discover you have one it’s your duty to embrace it. 

Despite the twin lessons of his parents, however, young Ideree seems to be struggling. Bodi and Nandin (D. Asardari) are concerned that he seems to have no friends and spends all his time obsessively playing video games even though she is Facetiming someone on her iPhone as she cooks and he is working on his laptop at the breakfast table. At school everyone’s on their phones before the teacher comes in and the streets are filled with people staring at their screens. Running to school every day attempting to escape the gauntlet of older bullies on the bridge, Ideree’s life changes when his computer mouse comes to life and takes the form of a young girl (Michidmaa Tsatsralt) who can manipulate the world around him to silence his nagging parents, despatch his tormentors, and even make him a teacher’s pet but she can’t fix the fact he’s got no friends because friendship is born of the heart’s desire to connect and even the most powerful computers couldn’t forge that. Her advice? Bring love and sunshine. While perhaps criticising the alienation born of increasing digitalisation, Janchivdorj Sengedorj doesn’t exactly advocate a return to the ger even as he comes full circle with the family enjoying a traditional festival but does perhaps suggest that the world works best when people bring the love and the light. We don’t have to believe the stories, Ideree tells us, but he thinks that people start to live a completely different life when they forget childhood dreams and he just might have a point.  


I, the Sunshine streams in the US March 17 – 21 as part of the 12th season of Asian Pop-Up Cinema.

Three short trailers (no subtitles)

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)