Life 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.
Festival trailer (dialogue free)