Don’t have a favorite Mongolian film yet? Worry no more. City of Wind, writer-director Lkhagvadulam Purev-Ochir’s feature debut, is here to expand your cinematic map and win your heart. Following a premiere in Venice, it screened at the Filmfest Hamburg and proved an absolute charmer. Slight as it may seem in narrative scope, this coming-of-age tale buzzes with tenderness and so much soul it feels positively healing.

We are introduced to the protagonist at a ceremony performed inside a yurt. Accompanied by well-wishers, an old man is kneeling in front of someone covered head to toe in bells, feathers, and a giant headgear, addressed only as “Spirit Grandfather.” From behind the face veil, a raspy and ancient voice answers the old man’s questions and offers solace. When the ritual is over and the traditional garb removed, “Spirit Grandfather” turns out to be 17-year-old Ze (Tergel Bold-Erdene), a high-schooler who can channel ancestral spirits to work as a shaman.

Ze is quite different from the other kids at school. When the hormonal teenage boys are joking around blasting porn on their phones, he stays out of it and minds his own business. What is his business, though? He’s graduating soon and doesn’t seem to know what’s next. To keep the shaman gig going and provide comfort to those who need it? To support his parents’ small business and improve the family’s situation so that he could (at least) move out of the room he still shares with his sister? What are the options available to a young man from the far corners of Ulaanbaatar? Why bother trying anything if nothing seems worth the risk? Well, that all changes when he’s asked to bless Maralaa (Nomin-Erdene Ariunbyamba), a beautiful, sad, rebellious girl with a mind very much of her own.

We’ve seen the boy-meets-girl-and-becomes-man storyline countless times in books and films. But City of Wind, in its observation of Ze’s evolution, goes beyond the personal to touch on questions of existential weight. While it’s never examined in detail, we’re made to understand that the shaman thing is no scam and that Ze is able to do what he does because he’s pure. When he meets Maralaa and feels, possibly for the first time, unsure about his convictions, the already anxiety-fraught teenage romance morphs into a crisis of faith that Purev-Ochir captures with acute sensitivity. It’s notable that the various spiritual practices portrayed in the film are not attributed to any particular belief system. Instead of godly worship, the characters (especially Ze and his mother) appear to live by non-doctrinal laws of devotion and discipline. They honor nature and ancestors and show humility in the face of the unknown. This depiction of spirituality outside of organized religion feels wise, refreshing, and gives insights into the traditions of a millennia-old culture.

At the same time, City of Wind heartily embraces the modern, restless energy of 21st-century Mongolia. Instead of deserts and desolation, the film highlights a generation of Ulaanbaatarians looking for love and fun in a bustling metropolis. Ze’s classmates are as slickly dressed and TikTok-addicted as their counterparts in American high school movies. And the central relationship between the two protagonists unfolds, for the most part, with the zest and blitheness of a romantic comedy. Above all the film is as much about the sweet, old-fashioned Ze as it is about Maralaa, a young woman so strong-willed and fiercely independent you come to see her as the face of a proud, emerging nation ready to assert its identity. 

This juxtaposition of tradition and modernity––of old magic and new ideas in a story about change––works in no small part because of its two leads. Ariunbyamba is captivating as the feisty girl who dares to call “Spirit Grandfather” a con artist. Showing both deep vulnerability and a stubbornness to write her own fate, it’s a performance that convinces you a boy like Ze would have no choice but fall head over heels for her character. Bold-Erdene, who won Best Actor of the Orizzonti section in Venice, is just as compelling. His unguarded look and manners betray the undiluted goodness of Ze. In a nightclub scene where he takes a break from the relentless temptation of alcohol, sex, and hedonism, the camera pans over his open face and you can read every struggle and debate that goes on right beneath the surface.

From the hot, kaleidoscopic dance floors to the frosty panorama of a forbidding landscape, DP Vasco Carvalho Viana captures the multifaceted allure of the Mongolian capital. The crisp images are often laced with a mistiness that adds an ethereal, fairytale quality to the frames. That same quality is further enhanced by Vasco Mendonça’s distinctive score which features organ and bass to hit notes of mystery and melancholy. During the end credits, the camera soars over an enchanted land as the dreamily familiar music plays, and one could be forgiven for feeling a bit overwhelmed by all that beauty.

With a debut as assured and technically accomplished as City of Wind, Purev-Ochir proves––even in regions that are most underrepresented on the world cinema stage––there are remarkable filmmaking talents to be discovered. At once disarmingly vibrant and keenly perceptive, her film is a joy to watch start to finish. Anyone who lacks for any vision of Mongolian cinema is in for a real surprise.

City of Wind screened at the Filmfest Hamburg 2023.

Grade: B+

No more articles