It’s often damning with the faintest of praise when a reviewer begins by discussing the visual quality of the film. That’s not so with Öndög, which is one of the most artful and striking movies of this year’s BFI London Film Festival – even if it’s not one of the most narratively exciting. Chinese auteur Quan’an Wang delivers a sparse drama set on the Mongolian steppe, which has surprises lurking around every corner.
The film opens with police officers shooting the breeze about hunting as they drive through the pitch-black plains, their headlights providing the only brief patch of illumination. Their reverie is interrupted when they discover the nude body of a murdered woman and promptly enlist their 18-year-old youngest cop (Norovsambuu) to keep an eye on the body. A herdswoman (Dulamjav Enkhtaivan) stops by to break the officer’s monotony, which has largely consisted of jamming to a tinny version of ‘Love Me Tender’ emanating from a smartphone speaker.
Wang’s film is distinctive from its first moments, swapping the small circle of vehicular light for a series of striking images, in which three-quarters of the frame is made up of sky, cramming the eerily flat landscape and the people stood upon it into the very bottom segment of the image. It’s an often breathtaking depiction of the enormity of nature and the relative insignificance of the human race.
The title of the film, Öndög, refers to eggs – specifically, dinosaur eggs. It’s an image that forms the backbone of the movie’s second half as it attempts to locate its emotional heart, largely through the lens of Enkhtaivan’s compelling performance. Given the surprising lack of close-ups deployed by Wang – much of the movie is shot at a distance so extreme as to largely toss aside any suggestion of voyeurism – it’s impressive that Enkhtaivan is able to convey so much potency in her interactions with the young cop, and her occasional lover and helper in the home (Aorigeletu), who thinks she should “find a man to get you through the days”. She’s not keen.
Öndög is sadly, though, a glacial experience at times. Once the novelty of the jaw-dropping cinematic beauty has begun to wear off, there’s little narrative or emotional depth to the material, beyond occasionally scattered scenes of power. There are long, sparse takes throughout in which meagre dialogue is spoken and nothing much seems to happen. It’s a film in search of a hook or a clear message to carry it through.
The inherent poetry of the movie’s cinematography, however, takes it a long way, despite its lack of narrative coherence or anything resembling storytelling thrust and momentum. Notably, it’s also a film that features a camel looking directly into the lens during a sex scene. What more can you want?
Dir: Quan’an Wang
Scr: Quan’an Wang
Cast: Dulamjav Enkhtaivan, Aorigeletu, Norovsambuu, Gangtemuer Arild
Prd: Wang Quan’an, Ying Ye
DOP: Aymerick Pilarski
Country: Mongolia, China
Run time: 100 mins
Öndög/em> is screening as part of the BFI London Film Festival.