wed 22/05/2024

If Only I Could Hibernate review - kids in grinding poverty in Ulaanbaatar | reviews, news & interviews

If Only I Could Hibernate review - kids in grinding poverty in Ulaanbaatar

If Only I Could Hibernate review - kids in grinding poverty in Ulaanbaatar

Mongolian director Zoljargal Purevdash's compelling debut

Battling with the city: Ulzii (Battsooj Uurtsaikh, right) and his neighbour (Davaasamba Sharav)Amygdala Films; Urban Films; Conic

Teenage Ulzii (Battsooj Uurtsaikh in an elegantly restrained performance) is looking after his little sister and brother in Ulaanbaatar after their illiterate mother has returned to the countryside to look for work. They’ve run out of coal and wood and it’s freezing inside their yurt. “If only we could hibernate, like bears. Never get cold, never catch the flu,” says the brother.

Director Zoljargal Purevdash’s remarkable debut, the first ever Mongolian film in the Cannes official selection, features impressive non-professional actors. She put out a casting call for kids from the Yurt district of the city where she grew up.

There’s no heating-system infrastructure in the district so people have to burn coal to survive the long, bitterly cold winters, making Ulaanbaatar one of the most air-polluted capital cities in the world. And when his brother starts coughing, Ulzii can only afford a day’s medicine for him.

Looking after his siblings was not part of Ulzii’s plan. He’s a physics whizz who loves his subject; he’s far ahead of his peers and is blessed with a dedicated, kind teacher (Batzorig Sukhbaatar) who encourages him to enter competitions (these recur rather too frequently during the film). If he wins, he’ll qualify for the nationals, which could lead eventually to a scholarship to study abroad. We see him murmuring in amazement as he looks at posters advertising far-flung places like MIT, Harvard and Tokyo University. But soon his hopes are in jeopardy due to the family’s grinding poverty.

ioichHis mother (Ganchimeg Sandagdorj, pictured above right) tries to put food on the table by scrubbing toilets, but, furious and resentful about being patronised by her clever son, she won’t take his advice about looking for better paid options. She’s become an alcoholic since the family moved to their yurt – cramped but richly decorated with its colourful furniture and iron stove - two years ago. They left the countryside so that the children could get a good education but, she says, the city killed their father, though precisely how remains unexplained. She rants drunkenly about his selfishness in leaving them alone, saying she wants to die too. Now they’re relying on the kindness of neighbours and a wealthier aunt, whose hand-outs make Ulzii feel like a beggar.

Ancient and modern ways coexist uneasily. In an extraordinary scene, his mother tells Ulzii to go and help the aunt, whose baby has an infection round his mouth. “As you’re his uncle, you must put your big toe in his mouth.” “Eh?” says Ulzii, looking appalled. The aunt, who lives in a modern flat, light years from the yurt, insists he has a bath – a rare event, probably - before the toe ceremony, accompanied by screams and laughter, begins. We see Ulzii, covered with bubbles, intently examining the shampoo bottles that line the side of the bath.

ioichThings are pretty bleak, though there’s a lighter moment when he and three friends go skating, knock back vodka shots and dance to Mongolian hip-hop. When his mother decides to go back to the countryside to earn money by picking pine nuts, Ulzii refuses to go. The youngest brother goes with her; the two others stay when he tells them how important school is. He thinks, naively, that they’ll survive on child welfare and food stamps.

There’s a wonderful solidarity between them as they play games such as water, ice, snow, a version of rock, paper, scissors, and scrounge cardboard for burning. But this can’t be sustained. The yurt gets colder. Ulzii has to skip classes in order to earn money for fuel by delivering meat and joining an illegal tree-cutting gang in the already depleted forest. His physics books lie unopened. He’s exhausted. He even insults his beloved teacher. How can he fulfil his dreams of escape?

The film has an austere beauty, with Ulaanbaatar’s high-rises contrasting with snowy forests and steppes. In one moving scene, the old neighbour insists that the siblings come to stay with him. Ulzii breaks down, sobbing on the man’s shoulder. “Cry your heart out, son,” says the old man. “You have greatness in you. But now you need help.” This is a catalyst for change and Purevdash’s eye-opening film leaves us with a feeling of hope.

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