In Lkhagvadulam Purev-Ochir’s debut feature, City of Wind, Ze is on the precipice of change. A model seventeen-year-old, he’s an excellent student, a dedicated son, and a good neighbour to the elderly gentleman who lives down the road. But Ze is also a shaman. In ceremonies attended by people from around his Mongolian village, seeking counsel, reassurance, and protection from his spirit, “Spirit Grandpa”.
When we first meet him, Ze bears his responsibilities stoically. In school he’s teased by classmates, and outside he’s quiet, almost withdrawn. Something’s gotta give, and it does, when he meets a young woman during a shamanic ceremony meant to protect her during heart surgery. Although she’s initially skeptical of him and his purported abilities, a relationship blossoms between them.
There’s a really lovely quality to the time these two spend together. They’re both introverts, sort of outcasts, and it takes them a bit of time to find a rhythm together. They’re both discovering new freedom – she through her ability, post-surgery, to do things she never could before, and he through meeting her; someone who allows herself to be bolder than he ever has. She’s outspoken, and a bit of a brat – a detail I love, because it feels so true to life. Who among us has not been charmed into bad behaviour by a hot, bratty girl? But as Ze is consumed by this new relationship, his other obligations are shunted to the side. Is he losing his way, or finding himself? And even if he’s a bit wayward, doesn’t every teenager deserve some time to do that?
I don’t know how much you know about Mongolia, but until recently, I knew very little. One thing that started to change that for me was last year’s novel When I’m Gone, Look for Me In the East, written by Quan Barry. It tells the story of a young monk on a quest to find a reincarnation of a lama, located somewhere across the Mongolian countryside. On his journey, he’s joined by his estranged twin brother, who has left the monastery for urban life in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia’s capital. This novel introduced me to some ideas that are present in City of Wind – particularly, the divide in the country between traditional ways of life and its rapid urbanization. Mongolia is known for its nomadic culture, but today roughly half of the country’s 3.3 million occupants live in Ulaanbaatar. Ze lives in a small village, but on dates in the capital, he shares dreams of living in a fancy apartment. Meanwhile, his sister is embroiled in conflict with their parents over her own lifestyle choices. Much like the country, they find themselves divided between traditional ways of life and the draw of everything new, modern, and urban.
The cinematography does a beautiful job of capturing the landscape with sweeping shots of the sloping, low rooftops of the village, and endless city skylines, hills and mountains rising up in the background. Plumes of smoke billow from chimneys and snow falls softly outside the window. Winter in Mongolia is no joke.
The film moves slowly, framing Ze’s thoughtful face as he grapples with his inner unravelling. Occasionally I think it moves a little too slowly, as I found my attention drifting in the film’s final stretch. hey could shave off a handful of shots of Ze contemplating without losing anything in the way of context. But listen, I get it. Your teen years are prime time for brooding, and hopefully, eventually, growth. That’s true whether you’re a suburban Canadian or a rural Mongolian shaman, and while I’ve seen plenty of films about the former, I’m glad to have now seen the latter in City of Wind.