After winning the Orizzonti award for Best Short Film last year (for “Snow in September”), Mongolian director Lkhagvadulam Purev-Ochir returns to Venice with her feature debut: a scintillating, spiritual coming-of-age drama about a teenage shaman trapped between modernity and tradition.
For most of “Sèr sèr salhi” (or “City of Wind”) it’s hard to be certain of how much 17-year-old Ze (Tergel Bold-Erdene) believes in his own ancestral rituals; it’s the rare perspective Purev-Ochir intentionally denies her audience. However, in obfuscating this dramatic tenet, she illuminates not only his looming self-doubts and his search for identity, but also, the dynamic complications of his high school life on the precipice of adulthood.
Set in the dead of winter, the movie’s opening scene speaks to a dueling intimacy and unknowability — the confounding sense of self that pervades life at 17 — told here through close-ups that reveal details, but those details themselves only serve to obscure. A rural hut plays host to a hunched-over shaman rhythmically beating an animal-skin drum. He’s shrouded in loose ceremonial clothing draped in beads and colorful threads. His face is veiled by a mask resembling long black hair, atop which sits a crown adorned with golden eyes; it’s as if this person is both physically blinded, but able to “see” in unconventional ways, beyond the physical.
He speaks — to curious and even desperate worshippers who have paid him for their pilgrimage — in a deep, gurgling voice. A young woman holds a lit cigarette to his hidden mouth. She refers to him as a “grandfather spirit,” translating his riddle-like prophecies about the worshippers’ fortunes into simple, everyday predictions. Once they leave, the tone of the scene (and the film at large) radically transforms.
The raspy-voiced shaman, now freed from his apparent ancestral spirit, removes his headdress, revealing the young and handsome Ze. The young woman, it turns out, is his older sister. They speak to each other (and bicker) with the familiar cadence of siblings in a teen drama, and they argue with their parents about chores and responsibilities. Ze’s spirit-conjuring is a family business of sorts, in a rural township on the outskirts of Ulaanbaatar, the Mongolian capital, and he has school in the city the next day, where he’s surrounded by friends and bullies alike, who — in their pristine school uniforms and blazers — bring up his traditions both casually and derisively.
To viewers unaccustomed to Ze’s rituals, or to contemporary Mongolia, this shift between an ethereal sense of mystery and a grounded, urban normalcy can be whiplash-inducing. However, in dispensing with the setting’s seeming paradoxes up front, Purev-Ochir allows this dichotomy to quickly settle and become an almost mundane part of the backdrop. Before long, the only paradox left unresolved is how Ze deals with the dueling pressures therein, between his position as a local soothsayer, and the enormous expectations placed upon him by his teachers, as a star pupil.
As Ze, Bold-Erdene shoulders these burdens with a quiet and enchanting calm. However, the atypical student is soon caught up in a typical teenage predicament, when performing a shamanic ritual for a family friend, in the hopes that her daughter’s surgery goes off without a hitch. It’s here that he meets the ailing Maralaa (Nomin-Erdene Ariunbyamba), a short-tempered 16-year-old on the verge of a major heart surgery, who unwittingly goes along with her mother’s fortune-telling wishes, but is quick to call Ze a conman.
Ze, however, finds himself entranced. At first, his crush on Maralaa begins distracting him in the classroom, when he finds and begins scrolling through her Instagram page, and when the two begin seeing each other in person, it throws his carefully-crafted sense of religious and curricular balance completely out of whack.
The new feelings accompanied by Ze’s blossoming romance don’t just make him rebellious, but they re-aligns his priorities in ways that cast doubt on his potential future, both as a mystic and an academic. However, rather than a linear tale of hormones interfering with responsibilities, being bitten by the love bug ends up having a liberating effect. With the burden of expectations slowly cast off from his shoulders, he begins exploring what living life truly feels like, whether drinking and dancing, or simply hanging out with a fellow loner, and the result is cinematically invigorating.
Purev-Ochir’s style is withholding at first, but it reveals a precise command of the camera, as she and cinematographer Vasco Carvalho Viana pan slowly across groups of lively students in uniform, their pristine, restrictive outfits clashing with their burgeoning sense of self. The more Ze and Maralaa passionately explore each other’s bodies and dreams, the more the pristine geographic and architectural landscape of Ulaanbaatar shifts into view, as if the very possibility of romance had widened their horizons.
There are, however, limits to this kind of shift in perspective, as Purev-Ochir explores. For instance, Ze’s parents and sister appear to be undergoing their own vital and emotionally potent subplot in the background, a story that Ze weaves and out of, but one to which he pays little mind, as he becomes increasingly caught up in his newfound fling. It’s the self-centeredness of teen-hood made cinematically manifest, through editing that cuts around the details of other people’s stories in order to return to Ze. Though the film revels in his liberation, it’s liberation at a cost, as the unfurling of these stories, of his family and his neighbors, has dire and unpleasant consequences, leading one to wonder whether or not he might’ve been able to see them coming, were he truly invested in his role as a shaman. Until that question is answered (be it directly or obliquely), whether Ze believes in this part of himself — or any part of himself — is a mystery not only to the audience, but to Ze as well.
“City of Wind” is a methodical, spiritual character piece that rests on a powerful central performance by Bold-Erdene, who embodies the confounding paradoxes of teenage life with tremendous skill. His conception of Ze is as kind as he is cold and egocentric, with a stillness that’s ss inviting as it is opaque. It’s a performance built of more questions than answers, presenting wildly different dimensions to Ze depending on who he’s around. Bold-Erdene depicts this multitudinous persona — of a boy figuring out what kind of man he wants to be — with the utmost vulnerability, even in his most guarded moments. It’s hard to look away from him.
With both expert tenderness and exacting dramatic inquiry, Purev-Ochir delves into the potent contradictions that arise when personal desires clash headfirst with cultural obligations, when the line between these ideas may not be entirely clear in the first place.