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‘City of Wind’ Review: Modern and Ancient Mongolia Meet in a Striking, Poignant Youth Drama

Mongolia, in the international cinematic imagination, tends to be largely defined by the rugged lyricism of its rural landscapes, peopled by grizzled nomads and eagle hunters, and of course, celebrated as the birthplace of conquering warlord Genghis Khan. So this quiet, confident debut from Lkhagvadulam Purev-Ochir comes as a refreshing change of pace, acknowledging the nation’s ancient heritage but only as distant backdrop to Ulaanbaatar’s skyscrapers, shopping malls and pulsing neon nightclubs. In the heart and on the fringes of this modern metropolis, a fragile connection sparks up between two teens — representatives of the youthful country’s expanding Gen Z demographic. Neither as self-consciously poetic nor as vaporous as its title implies, “City of Wind” is a carefully tended flame that spreads a little circle of light and warmth in the world’s coldest capital.

The very first scene lays out its surprising juxtapositions neatly. A shaman, referred to as “Grandfather-Spirit,” wearing a fringed costume and face-covering headdress topped with painted-on eyes, dances in a small hut structure. He emits a throaty growl, which is translated into level-headed advice and words of comfort by a young female assistant. The family seeking succor seem satisfied, and the shaman removes his costume, revealing that underneath, he is 17-year-old Ze (a lovely, inward turn from newcomer Tergel Bold-Erdene). Far from the wise old elder we might have expected, when not channeling the ghosts of the past to unlock the secrets of the future, Ze is a regular teenage high-schooler, and a good student prone to being mocked by the cool-guy class bully for his strange extracurricular activities.

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However Ze, who is sincere in his belief in the shamanic abilities that he exhibited first as a young boy, seems to have reconciled the two halves of his life, even if the strangeness of the family business (the female assistant turns out to be his sister Oyu, who has a pregnancy drama of her own to contend with) sets him somewhat apart from his peers. His parents are proud of their son’s gifts, and he has a flinty but affectionate sibling relationship with Oyu (Anu-Ujin Tsermaa), who perhaps does not want to admit how much the solitary twanging of his jaw harp in their shared bedroom at night soothes her.  He has his family, and his clients including an elderly nieghbor who frets about  his alcoholic son (one descriptive detail is the custom of referring to people less by name than by relationship, so Ze calls them, respectively, “neighbor-grandfather” “and “neighbor-brother”), and for now that seems enough.

This changes during one ritual he performs, for Marala (Nomin-Erdene Ariunbyamba) a girl about to undergo heart surgery, who is a year younger than Ze, but a world more savvy. In fact, the ceremony has been arranged against her will by her mother, and while she grudgingly submits to it, she has no compunction in snapping at him afterwards, accusing him of being “a conman.” Ze develops a crush of the kind we perhaps only ever get on those who seem at first to hate our guts.

He visits her in hospital while she is recuperating, and there discovers that she is a loner too, living with her mother, and missing her father who lives in Korea. A tentative, sweet relationship springs up between them. Under its influence, Ze dyes his hair, starts slacking on his schoolwork and getting into trouble in class. But not all the changes he is undergoing are negative: one scene during which he and his classmate-tormentor end up leading a jokey rebellion against their martinet teacher, indicates that he is also starting to stand up for himself.

Modern-girl Maralaa’s vision of her future involves moving out into the rural wilds, while shaman Ze dreams of earning enough money to buy one of the city’s gadget-filled smart apartments. You always aspire to what you do not have. But here, those pipe dreams sit alongside a peculiarly endearing acceptance of the way things are, that extends even into the film’s subtle, simple style. Ze may sometimes operate in the ethereal realm, but Vasco Carvalho Viana’s photography is rooted in the real — from the crumbling shanty-like suburb where the family lives to the flat-lit sterility of a shopping mall to the dull institutional blandness of the classroom, the film quietly valorizes the everyday.

Coming-of-age movies often spin on a tradition/modernity axis, and always feature someone choosing a path to adulthood from among the options offered to them by circumstance. But seldom are those familiar tensions as gracefully outlined as in Purev-Ochir’s gently yearning first film where, rather than displaying any of the showier debutante virtues, she deftly fills her film with tender feeling, and then carries it through so carefully that it brims without spilling a drop.

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