berlinale dispatch: detours in the steppe

First published on February 11, 2019 as part of the 2019 Berlinale Talent Press workshop.

In the haunting opening sequence of Wang Quan’an’s ÖNDÖG, a car stumbles upon a dead woman in the heart of the Mongolian steppe, its headlights eerily illuminating her naked body. The police are summoned, and they task a young, rookie officer with guarding the scene until they get a larger vehicle to transport the corpse. A local, rifle-bearing herdswoman named “Dinosaur” – the only inhabitant in a 100-kilometre radius – is ordered to keep the boy company and protect him from the wolves as he waits.

It’s a setup that has all the makings of a classic murder-mystery, but it turns out to be the first of the many narrative misdirections Quan’an deploys throughout his elliptical, ethereal seventh feature, which screens in Competition at this year’s Berlinale. The murder is a digression, resolved off screen midway through the film; instead, Quan’an’s real focus is Dinosaur and her quiet, unusually free-willed existence in the middle of nowhere. The camera follows her as she tends to some errands at her yurt before returning to the young officer; and it stays with her as she snuggles with the boy in front of a fire, bantering and then having tender sex with him.

ÖNDÖG indulges in several detours like this one. Quan’an sets up dramatic premises – a possible love triangle, a betrayal – only to let them evaporate into the vast horizons of the setting, returning repeatedly to the meat (pun intended) of the film: the fleshly details of Dinosaur’s everyday life. One extended sequence follows her and her friend – in almost real-time – as they slaughter a sheep; in another, the pair painstakingly helps a cow deliver a calf.

Framed against the gorgeous expanse of the steppe, captured by cinematographer Aymerick Pilarski in extreme, saturated wide shots, these birthings and killings seem to take on a quasi-mythical quality, imbuing the film with a cosmic, rather than narrative, logic. But underneath all this lush imagery and grandiose symbolism, ÖNDÖG also emerges as a surprisingly simple and powerful story of female agency. Dinosaur, played with revelatory grit by non-professional Dulamjav Enkhtaivan, is direct with her desires and steadfast with her refusals. She’s juxtaposed poignantly with the other (mostly peripheral and spectral) women in the film: As they suffer the consequences of independence, Dinosaur subverts societal—and narrative—conventions to make her own, quietly defiant choices.

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