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[personal profile] glaurung_quena
A very good movie that didn't get the respect it deserved, probably because most reviewers were too bound by realism and materialism to understand it.

In Communist Mongolia in (judging by the cars) the 1950's or early 60's, Bagi lives in a yurt with his mother and grandfather, herding sheep. He has very keen hearing, which lets him find lost members of his flock. We are also told he has inherited a spiritual destiny from his ancestors. One winter day, while attempting to locate a lost sheep, Bagi's soul becomes detached from his body. His body lies convulsing in the snow on a treeless steppe next to the lost sheep and his faithful horse, while his spirit wanders lost in a snowy steppe that has trees in it.

His family retrieves his body, but he continues to stay in a trance, so they call in a shamaness to help guide his wayward spirit back home. She succeeds, and advises his parents that he should come live with her, so that his spiritual talents will be trained and so he will not get lost from his body so easily in the future.

Before Bagi can do anything about this advice, soldiers come and inform the family that there is an animal plague going around, which is also dangerous to humans. They will have to leave the steppe and live in town. Their animals must be quarantined. Don't worry, jobs will be provided. Welcome to Soviet-style forced collectivization.

The next scene opens with the family living in a brutalist apartment block: the grandfather peels potatoes at a snail's pace while his daughter runs a claw shovel at the local strip coal mine, and Bagi couriers mail on his motorcycle. Their animals have been taken from them and they feel rootless and useless. One day, while wailing in despair at the edge of the coal pit, Bagi hears someone buried in one of the coal cars on the train that is just leaving. He boards the train and rescues Zolzaya from being smothered under a pile of coal. As the train arrives at the central heating plant, they pretend to be coal thieves, and are sentenced to a month of forced labour.

Zolzaya is unconcerned -- her brother, a black marketeer, will bribe the official in charge, and spring her and her friends before too long. Bagi, on the other hand, is too preoccupied with keeping body and soul in touch with each other. Sitting with the other members of the labour battalion on the back of a flatbed truck, he convulses again, and after his vision ends, he finds himself in the hospital with a diagnosis of epilepsy.

And here is where almost all the reviews I looked at lost any ability to understand the movie, and instead declared it "muddled" (NYT) and nonsensical (SFgate). They bought the doctor's diagnosis, and, having adopted a "rational" explanation for what is going on, were utterly unable to understand the mystical goings on in the final third of the movie, in which Baghi's visions mix and mingle with the "real world."

Baghi realizes that the plague was a lie and their animals are still alive somewhere. He learns where they are stored. Somehow that knowledge moves from the spirit world to the real world, and Zolzaya leads a raid to liberate the animals. Then the real world begins to operate by spirit world logic, so Zolzaya and her compatriots can paralyze the guards with the reflections from broken bits of mirror, and as the animals leave the warehouse where they were being held, sacred blue scarves rain from the sky so that the raiders can tie the scarves around the necks of their freed animals.

I know I missed a great deal of import in this film due to not being familiar with the culture. The complete and blessed lack of any exposition at all (minutes pass with hardly any dialogue whatsoever, this is a film of few words) obviously left most reviewers confused and drifting, but it left me deeply engaged and working hard to sort out what was going on. I see I haven't talked at all about the most significant character in the film, the magnificent, awe-inspiring, and eerie landscape of the Mongolian steppes in winter (the entire film happens in the dead of winter), and the haunting soundtrack that accompanies it.

All in all, a stunningly beautiful, thought provoking film whose ending manages to be both downbeat and upbeat at the same time, highly recommended.

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August 2017

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