Mongolian Bling: Brisbane Film Festival Review

Mongolian Bling - H 2012
This entertaining yet serious-minded documentary finds young people chillin' and illin' in the land of Genghis Khan.  

Director Benj Binks tracks the explosion of hip-hop in Mongolia as an ancient culture searches for a modern identity.

A more improbable hip-hop nation would be hard to imagine, but Australian filmmaker Benj Binks finds the flow in Mongolian Bling, a keenly observed, rhythmically buoyant documentary charting the rise of rap in the snow-blanketed ’hoods of post communist-era Mongolia.

Forget the yurts, nomads and Genghis Khan, Binks takes us inside a modern-day culture boasting a vibrant alternative music scene, where baggy-jeaned, baseball-capped youth experience the growing pains of their young democracy through the beats and socio-political rhymes of the country’s rap stars.

Resisting the urge to coast on novelty value alone, the polished, cannily edited film delves deep into the barely known society using hip hop as a prism. Following its screening at the Brisbane International Film Festival this week, it could stir interest on the international fest circuit, while a one-hour small-screen version to air on Australian national broadcaster ABC November 25 should easily find slots in overseas TV markets.

An elder traditional musician’s contention that hip hop originated in Mongolia before making its way to America might be stretching things a bit, but he makes his case with a twinkle in his eye and who’s to say he’s entirely wrong? Opening on the familiar stereotype of a chill lunar landscape, nomadic herders and Mongolian folk music, Mongolian Bling segues neatly into the thudding kick of a hip hop beat and the concrete terrain of the capital, Ulan Bator.

Here, we follow an eclectic mix of young rappers using the art form as a weapon of expression as they confront issues such as government corruption, alcoholism and the increasing gap between rich and poor.

Quiza, one of the country’s leading rappers, is aiming to stage Mongolia’s first live concert while Gee, who hails from the ghetto-like Ger district of Ulan Bator, is committed to “keeping it real” and considers Quiza a sell-out. The patriotic, top-hat-wearing duo Black Rose dress in traditional garb and rap about the natural beauty of their homeland. Hard-working, sweet-faced young mom Gennie is also profiled – she hopes to upend stereotypes and become Mongolia’s first female rap star, although her grandma, a former folk-singer, worries about the westernization of Mongolian youth.

While much of the music is influenced by American gangsta rap, there is a groundswell of rappers working to incorporate centuries-old traditional Mongolian sounds such as throat-singing and the music of the cello-like morin khuur. As urbanization sweeps across the vast east central Asian territory – more than half the population now lives in the capital – nomadic customs are slipping and there are those who see this hybrid hip-hop as the unlikely saviour of an ancient culture.

It’s a topic writer-director and co-editor Binks explores with gusto and a solid working knowledge, having spent five years immersed in Ulan Bator’s underground scene after a stint as tour guide on the Trans-Siberian Railway. There’s flair in the presentation too, from the intertitles in traditional Mongolian script, the crisp cinematography and fluid editing looping across a near-constant soundtrack of samples and beats.

Cast: Gennie, D. Enkhtaivan, Gee, Quiza, Black Rose, B. Bayarmagnai

Production company: Flying Fish Films

Writer-director: Benj Binks

Producer: Nubar Ghazarian

Director of photography: Ignacio Penche Perez

Editors: Benj Binks, Ignacio Penche Perez, Davide Michielin

Music: Ned Beckley

Sales: Flying Fish, Melbourne

No rating, 90 minutes