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Öndög — Young Critics Workshop

Öndög (Wang Quan’an, 2019)

After finding a body in the endless Mongolian plains, a ‘Young Policeman’ (credited as such) charged with protecting the scene finds aid from a somewhat older herdswoman, Dinosaur, who masters the land but shuns intimacy. It’s Chinese director Wang Quan’an’s way of throwing a bone to those frustrated by Öndög’s depictions of female life in the sticks.

Initially, Öndög’s ethnographic imagery seems aimless, tailor made for European festival audiences with its long shots, rambling dialogue, and hint of mystery. Then a slow motion sex scene takes place under the watchful eye of Dinosaur’s trusted Alpaca, turning into a duel under the stars as Dinosaur shoots, mid-coitus, at an attacking wolf. Lara Croft could never. Cutting between long shots and intimate handheld, Quan’an has lulled the audience into his mood of unpredictability, the plains a liminal space where nothing can change.

Digital photography captures the landscapes with a realism that slyly allows for imaginative ruptures in form. When a CGI wolf is seen in the distance, moving at a low frame rate through the dry heat, its interaction with the digital texture of the landscape lends it a mirage-like quality. French cinematographer Aymerick Pilarski abstracts scenes further by pulling slowly out of focus, so the natural light sources turn into inkblots. Playful sound design brings out surprising, funny character details; the well timed bleat of a goat or Young Policeman dancing to a live recording on his headphones. The sound of concert hall applause over one of those far away shots, lit only by the light on his phone, makes a fine point out of how utterly alone Young Policeman is before Dinosaur.

In one stark scene, Young Policeman notices the similarities between the Chief of Police’s romantic life and a suspect’s background. Constantly, he and Dinosaur are forced to confront the responsibilities that come with the outside world’s impositions. It’s ultimately a film about young people navigating their relationships through talking, like if Rohmer made a rural film about goat herding.