“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.
Original trailer (English subtitles)