If Judge William Lee can stay awake through a Tarkovsky film, he can stay awake through an...zzz...zzz...
A meditation on the human condition…through a Mongolian prism.
Set against the harsh but beautiful winter landscape of Mongolia, Khadak is a magical meditation on the clash between traditional cultures and modern greed. The pace may be a little slower than most viewers can tolerate, but each exquisitely crafted scene mesmerizes like a waking dream.
Facts of the Case
A young sheepherder named Bagi (Batzul Khayankhyarvaa) lives with his mother and grandfather on the remote Mongolian steppes. Like other nomads, they are people of the land, living a rugged but satisfying life. When an epileptic fit puts Bagi in a deep state of unconsciousness, the local Shamaness (Tserendarizav Dashnyam) is called to help. "He has something within him from his ancestors," the old woman explains. After calling Bagi's spirit back to their reality, the Shamaness is convinced that Bagi is destined to become a shaman. However, all their lives take a sudden turn when government agents appear at their camp.
A sickness is affecting livestock in the area and Bagi and his family are told they must evacuate and their sheep are to be destroyed. Reluctantly, they pack up the belongings from their yurt and board the military truck. Relocated to a bleak mining town, Bagi finds a job as a mail courier while his mother operates a gigantic excavator at the open-pit mine. The grandfather has the hardest time adjusting to their new life. Robbed of his usefulness, he spends his days staring out the window of their apartment. "How poor we are at defending ourselves," he laments.
Bagi's latent shamanic ability leads him to a coal thief named Zolzaya (Tsetsegee Byamba) and her rebellious friends. Zolzaya's brother also happens to trade meat on the black market. His perspective broadened by his fellow discontented youth, the unhappy Bagi begins to suspect that the government lied in order to move his family off the land.
Co-directors Peter Brosens and Jessica Woodworth originally intended to make a documentary on aviation in Mongolia before the idea for Khadak came together. Their fictional narrative is tempered with an eye for realistic detail, and their sure hand at storytelling is also well displayed. The movie's deliberate pace, with static shots that linger for longer than expected, may test viewers' patience (it did mine) but the enigmatic story and stunning imagery make the effort worth it. At times, it reminded me of the films of Andrei Tarkovsky (Stalker, Andrei Rublev) where the camera just seems to stare for long stretches of time—except here it is not boring. There is always something happening within the frame of Khadak and the camera is constantly watching something rather than staring at nothing. There is also humor in the action, such as the moment when soldiers rig the farmers' tractors to run unmanned to use up the fuel. There is something intrinsically fascinating and funny about a vehicle driving itself into the distance.
Cinematographer Rimvydas Leipus deserves credit for the exceptional, elegant beauty of every shot in this movie. There are many scenes photographed against snow-covered plains under sunlight, yet every shot is perfectly lit. The frozen land manages to look both domestic and imposing at once. Indeed, the setting has enough of a surreal quality that a subtle change in lighting and angle is all that is needed to convincingly move the action between the real world and the spirit realm. Patient camerawork and precise framing let the (seemingly) static compositions come to life in real time: a fleet of distant objects on the horizon gradually grow into a convoy of trucks; a giant mining machine emerges from nowhere to dwarf the human on the landscape.
The actors bring believability to their broadly defined characters. Veteran actors lend familiarity to the traditional roles of the stoic grandfather and mysterious shamaness. The younger actors—some making their acting debuts—have an unpolished, casual edge to their performances. However, there is a slight emotional coldness to the performances that, combined with the attitude of the filmmaking, did not make it easy for me to empathize with Bagi's story. It felt more like I was merely observing his situation rather than being engrossed in it.
Exhibiting next to no flaws, the picture quality of this DVD is excellent. There is good detail all through the frame even when the majority of it is shades of white. The image is crisp and clean like a sunny winter morning. The perfect shade of sky blue—a significant symbolic color throughout the movie—is rendered consistently with a smooth richness. The gorgeous 1.78:1 anamorphic presentation makes even the slowest scene a visual treat.
The sound is less impressive though entirely adequate. The movie is generally quiet with some ambient environmental sound effects. The stereo mix does not do enough to distinguish the soundscapes of the real and spiritual worlds. There is a lively mix of traditional and Western-influenced Mongolian music which builds with the movie toward its climactic final act.
The 27-minute making-of featurette is a cut above the usual promotional piece, playing more like a diary of the production. Occasional narration from co-director Jessica Woodworth explains some of the challenges encountered during the harsh Mongolian winter. She also talks briefly about the themes of the movie, but she speaks in generalities rather than spelling out her intentions explicitly. Like the main feature, "Making of Khadak" has a quiet, contemplative quality to it. There are long stretches, without commentary, where the camera simply observes. Fortunately, the activity of the crew is actually quite interesting. And after seeing the almost surreal settings of the movie, I found it fascinating to see those same locations in the context of the real world.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The movie moves at a deliberately slow pace that may put off some viewers. I have always felt that slow movies work much better in the theater where there is nothing to distract you during the time you have dedicated to concentrating on the movie. Watching this movie at home, I must admit that the fast-forward button was awfully tempting at times. I would not say any shot lasts too long—every scene is beautiful and a joy to watch—but a lot of shots are long.
Speaking of fast-forward, the ability to scan forward or backward is disabled on the featurette. It's also not possible to skip chapters on the half-hour program. This is a big inconvenience that greatly reduces the supplement's repeat viewing potential.
The slow pace and perplexing resolution may test some viewers' patience. But the mesmerizing visuals, eclectic music and unique setting make the journey worthwhile.
Sleepy, yes. Guilty, no.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Life Size Entertainment
• Making of Khadak
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