'Ondog' ('Egg'): Film Review | Berlin 2019

Courtesy of Berlin International Film Festival
The ultimate Chinese-Mongolian art film.

Chinese director Wang Quan’an ('Tuya’s Marriage') returns to the Mongolian steppe with some more offbeat tales about love and survival.

Tantalizing in the glimpse it offers of universal truths but frustrating in its anti-narrative approach, Ondog is an easy film to admire but a hard one to love. Whimsical characters do weird, unlikely things on the endless, timeless Mongolian steppe, influencing each other’s lives unpredictably, but very little adds up in this faux-noir, which many will judge monotonous and inconsequential. Still, Chinese director Wang Quan’an is at his most modern and confident here, and his very personal brand of perverse half-storytelling, with its dark sense of humor, could interest Western art house audiences with a taste for exoticism.

Wang has been a Berlin festival favorite since he won the Golden Bear in 2007 with his Mongolian-set Tuya’s Marriage, a film about a married herdswoman who decides to divorce her ailing husband and remarry in order to support him and their children. Ondog mirrors this down-to-earth character in a courageous, solitary herdswoman forced to sacrifice sentiment to survive.

Ondog, as will become clear in the last part of the film, is the Mongolian word for egg and in context it refers both to fossilized dinosaur eggs (which we are told were first discovered locally) and to the growing fetus in a mother’s womb. The film’s mysterious quality is due to the way Wang, who also wrote the screenplay and produced, tacks together several different stories and the casual way he narrates them. Nothing much happens for long intervals until the stillness of life is interrupted by something being born, or dying, or experiencing love.

The film opens in classic Chinese noir fashion, though the Turkish steppe of Nuri Bilge Ceylon's Once Upon a Time in Anatolia also springs to mind. In a long tracking shot filmed from a jeep bouncing over the grasslands by night, some hunters discover the naked body of a murdered woman in the middle of the steppe. The police are called in; but those expecting a murder mystery to develop will have their hopes dashed. The law officers arrive under-equipped in a dodgy jeep and have to call in a local herdswoman to scare a wolf away from the corpse with her rifle. Then they depart, leaving behind an 18-year-old rookie to guard the body during the freezing night.

Silhouetted in a primeval twilight shot, he dances to odd tunes on his cell phone (“Love Me Tender” gets a laugh) to keep warm. He is saved by the return of the herdswoman on her shaggy camel. In the interval, she has called her long-time beau over to her yurt to slaughter a sheep (on screen) and has made hot soup to warm the boy. A bottle of booze helps, too. Finally, huddling against the camel’s back, she instructs him in love-making while keeping one eye open for the wolf.

Day dawns. The police chief returns and removes the murder victim’s frozen body together with that of a gray wolf shot during the night.

The next segment sees the police waiting for the body to defrost so a doctor can perform an autopsy. A “suspect” has been found – the victim’s spurned lover. Though he won’t talk, they expect him to confess he killed her out of jealousy – so much for suspense. The chief reminisces about his wife and tries to hook the rookie up with a pretty police trainee from the city. Whether he succeeds, and whether the suspect confesses, and what the result of the autopsy is, we do not learn.

In the third part of the film, the herdswoman again calls her beau over to help a cow deliver its calf (on screen.) After they carry the cold, slimy creature into the yurt to keep warm, she gives her lover some news that makes them both very happy.

Clearly there is more here than meets the eye; in fact one of the first lines in the film is a hunter’s warning: “What we see with human eyes is not always real.” Thus the murder is a pretext to reflect on the finality of death, and the dinosaur egg (a gift to the herdswoman from her lover) a symbol of the great cycles of nature. Humans can take on animal characteristics if they try, and so on. All fascinating fragments of ideas, no doubt, but having the consistency of a dream.

The fact that the actors are almost always seen in long shot and heavily bundled up against the weather makes their rare close ups all the more interesting: Dulamjav Enkhtaivan as the practical herdswoman, Aorigeletu as her funny, faithful lover and Norovsambuu Batmunkh as the naive young policeman. Capturing a physical sense of the eternal steppe is Aymerick Pilarski’s glowing cinematography, which becomes a character in itself.

Production company: New Theater Union
Cast: Dulamjav Enkhtaivan, Aorigeletu, Norovsambuu Batmunkh, Gangtemuer Arild
Director, producer, screenwriter: Wang Quan’an
Director of photography: Aymerick Pilarski
Production designer: Bater
Costume designer: Wurichaihu
Editor: Yang Wenjian
Venue: Berlin Film Festival (competition)
World sales: Arclight Films
100 minutes