'Black Milk' ('Schwarze Milch'): Film Review | Berlin 2020

Courtesy of Sven Zellner/Zellner & Borchu Film
Warm and intriguing.

A Mongolian woman disillusioned with the West returns to her native land to visit her sister in Uisenma Borchu’s sexually liberated drama of the steppes.

The hallowed feminist message that women’s bodies belong to them is exotically dramatized in the Germany-Mongolia co-production Black Milk (Schwarze Milch). Set among nomads living on the Mongolian plains, but seen through the eyes of a Westernized local woman, the story of two sisters plays with cultural expectations in a tale of sexuality and the limits of female empowerment when it jostles tradition. Drawing the viewer into the story are its striking leads, Gunsmaa Tsogzol and Uisenma Borchu, who try to bridge the culture gap that separates them after one sister moves to Europe.

The German-Mongolian Borchu, who also wrote and directed, revisits many of the themes of her first feature, Don’t Look at Me That Way. One of these is the disruption caused by a woman who expresses her sexuality freely. In the more polished Black Milk, this liberated perspective feels more natural in the story of the Europeanized sister who refuses to follow the traditional dictates regarding women’s role, and who gradually frees her steppe-bound sister from many of her fears. All told, it holds the right cards for festival and art house play.

Wessi (Borchu) is living in Germany with one of the nastiest male chauvinists in recent film memory (Franz Rogowski in a memorable cameo). One morning he switches off the ethnic music she’s listening to with a curse, uses her body for passionless sex and sternly warns her she can’t leave him because she “belongs” to him. We are cheered to see her pack her bags and walk out the door.

Wessi arrives in Mongolia looking like a fish out of water, a thin, chain-smoking sophisticate in an unpaved village where the local entertainment appears to be dog fights. When she’s driven to her sister’s yurt on the remote steppe, however, things look brighter. The land is clean, the sky is infinite, animals are treated with respect. People lead basic lives herding their sheep and goats, riding horseback and at night they take their bearings by the stars. Wessi’s sister Ossi (Gunsmaa Tsogzol) weeps tears of joy at their reunion, and the neighbors happily celebrate her return.

This is a very physical film that doesn’t back off from shocking scenes, including the slaughter of two goats by inserting an arm into their stomach cavity. When wolves kill some sheep and leave their carcasses to rot, Ossi is much more upset than her sister.

She’s pregnant with her first child, but her young husband is a wastrel who spends more time in bars than at home. It’s she who has to milk the goats and keep them in line. Interestingly, the first signs of tension with Wessi arise over the latter’s beauty and makeup routines. When Wessi tells Ossi that the queens of ancient Egypt used to bathe in milk to whiten their skin, Ossi is scandalized (though later, she will try it out). Milk is the nomads’ basic food staple and mustn’t be wasted. A most surprising use for it is suggested when an intruder bursts into the yurt one night ready to rape them, and Wessi coldly threatens him with a magical incantation evoking black milk from her breast. The scene is very startling and poetic but overly ambiguous, leaving questions behind.

A more serious transgression than milk in the eyes of the community is Wessi’s attraction to the unmarried, dark-skinned Terbish (Terbish Demberei), a neighbor who lives alone in his yurt and is much older than her. Ossi calls him a “freak” and urges Wessi to keep her distance, but that only piques her curiosity. She recounts her erotic fantasies to her sister, who remains speechless but also fascinated. In a delicately visualized dream sequence, she asks Terbish to bathe her. After her stepfather calls a powwow with other elders, Wessi is forbidden to see him anymore. Her personal choice is overruled by those who see their age difference as improper. Does that stop her? Borchu finds just the right ending for the story, sensitive and on the mark.

As the intellectually schooled Wessi, Borchu can be a bit abstract and mysterious onscreen, while non-pro actress Tsogzol has a winning spontaneity that makes Ossi easy to identify with. Like all good plainsmen, Demberei is strong, silent and wise in the role of Terbish.

The tech work is warm and modern, beginning with DP Sven Zellner's switch-hitting between open air vistas and the dreamlike intimacy of the women indoors and in their fantasies. The use of slight jump cuts speeds things up nicely. 

Production company: Sven Zellner and Uisenma Borchu Film
Cast: Gunsmaa Tsogzol, Uisenma Borchu, Terbish Demberei, Franz Rogowski, Borchu Bawaa, Bud-Ochir Tegshee, Bayarsaikhan Renchinjugder
Director-screenwriter: Uisenma Borchu
Producer: Sven Zellner
Co-producer: Thomas Burnhauser
Director of photography: Sven Zellner
Production designer: Borchu Bawaa
Costume designer: Tschagsalmaa Borchuu
Editors: Uisenma Borchu, Christine Schorr
Music: Daniel Murena
Venue: Berlin International Film Festival (Panorama)
World sales: Nine Film

91 minutes