Winds of change

Lkhagvadulam Purev-Ochir on depicting modern Mongolia and Shamanism onscreen in City Of Wind

by Amber Wilkinson

Ze (Tergel Bold-Erdene) and Maralaa (Nomin-Erdene Ariunbyamba) in City Of Wind. Lkhagvadulam Purev-Ochir:  'For me, the film is also an attempt to kind of document this particular time and space that is modern day Mongolia'
Ze (Tergel Bold-Erdene) and Maralaa (Nomin-Erdene Ariunbyamba) in City Of Wind. Lkhagvadulam Purev-Ochir: 'For me, the film is also an attempt to kind of document this particular time and space that is modern day Mongolia'
Lkhagvadulam Purev-Ochir’s feature debut City Of Wind has made a strong start to its festival run, screening at Venice and, soon, in Toronto. Set in Mongolia’s Ulaanbaatar it is a coming-of-age tale about a young Shaman Ze (newcomer Tergel Bold-Erdene) as he considers his place in the world and navigates the conflicting pressures of being a Shaman and falling in love with fellow teenager Maralaa (Nomin-Erdene Ariunbyamba). We caught up with the director ahead of the Toronto screenings to chat about expressing Shamanism on film, modern Mongolia and the tip she got from A Separation Oscar-winner Asghar Farhadi.

A lot of people, if they like World Cinema, will have come to Mongolia via the countryside, with films like Tuya’s Marriage or maybe even films made by people who aren't Mongolian, like Eagle Huntress. Why did you choose to depict this urban side of the country?

Lkhagvadulam Purev-Ochir
Lkhagvadulam Purev-Ochir
Lkhagvadulam Purev-Ochir: Because I'm from the city. I mean, it's not that I wanted to particularly show something that was different to what was normally shown about Mongolia. But it's because I'm from the city and I represent a generation that was born in the city and grew up in the city. So it was kind of my story to tell.

Not everyone will be aware of the number of changes that have happened to Mongolia, especiallythe urban areas. I think this film really brings a lot of that home, the Soviet backdrop, the tensions between the old and the new. Was that something that you were hoping to sort of be able to bring to the fore by giving it an urban setting as well?

LPO: Sometimes when I meet with people, there's some who still ask, “Do you have television in Mongolia?” For me, the film is also an attempt to kind of document this particular time and space that is modern day Mongolia. I guess a specific focus on the city and the different aspects of the city because the city itself is a coming-of-age story, you know, it's a transitional space. If you look closely, there are these different stratas and hierarchy tohow the city expanded. You can notice the Soviet buildings, the newer tall, skyscrapers, the yurt districts, with the nomadsmigrating to the city. And then the rolling mountains that kind of hint at the other Mongolia, that perhaps the world is more familiar with.

In a way, your central character, his search for identity is almost mirroring that kind of coming of age of the country to a degree. Do you feel that or am I over over interpreting that?

LPO: Yes because even though he's a Shaman, he dreams of living in an apartment, which is what every Mongolian wants. That's kind of the Mongolian dream at the moment, to move away from the countryside, move away from living in yurts. For me, that is backward thinking because I was born and raised in the city. My vision is towards the countryside. This is why, for me, it was important that Maraala says, “Oh, yeah, but I want to live in the countryside”.

So when you were growing up, were you aware of these Shamanic traditions or involved with that on a family level? Or is it something that you just knew of, sort of more tangentially more away from you?

LPO: Not my dad. My dad is a hardcore atheist representation of our Communist background, but my mom and my grandmother, they're very spiritual/religious people. Even Buddhism, because that's kind of the major religious religion in Mongolia, is very tantric in Mongolia. It's very much immersed with Shamanic culture and Shamanic elements and Shamanism also has retained a bit of Buddhism in order to stay alive throughout the history of Mongolia.

Shaman Ze (Tergel Bold-Erdene) in City Of Wind. Lkhagvadulam Purev-Ochir: 'What I wanted to impart was the naturalness and everyday aspect of these rituals. And the intimacy of, of these moments'
Shaman Ze (Tergel Bold-Erdene) in City Of Wind. Lkhagvadulam Purev-Ochir: 'What I wanted to impart was the naturalness and everyday aspect of these rituals. And the intimacy of, of these moments'

So, yes, I do come from a very spiritual family and my experience with Shamans was more in my I guess, in my 20s. Something that I always say is you don't go to a Shaman to ask about the weather. You go because you're desperate and you really really need help. Yes, I've been to shamans, I've been to Buddhist lamas, I've been to fortune tellers and kinds of spiritual people on the spectrum.

The inspiration for this film actually came in from a Shaman that I still go to, he's kind of like our family Shaman now. When we first started going to him, I didn't know who he was. And when I was taken to him, I was running late and did not get to see who he was before the ritual. After the ritual, this young man was sitting next to me on the couch. And I was thinking, I didn't see this kid. Was he in the ritual? I didn't notice him. He was super cute, super cool with full tattoos on both arms. He was about 18 or 19. And after we left the apartment, my mom told me he was the Shaman that we had just been to in the ritual. And that was the inspiration behind the film.

He’s a really lovely character in a way because almost he can’t quite believe he’s a Shaman himself. But there’s a real sense of mysticism about the film, even though it's very rooted in the real world and the everyday. There is that sort of almost supernatural element towards the end of the film, and I just wondered how hard it was to incorporate that without losing the rootedness in reality.

LPO: The film is about Shamanism. So there was always this question of how are we going to depict the spirituality? How are we going to depict something that perhaps is not so tangible? And it was clear to me that I did not want a magic realism style because that means it's magical. And I'm trying to say, quite the opposite. The way I've experienced these rituals is on such a day-to-day basis, almost. What I wanted to impart was the naturalness and everyday aspect of these rituals. And the intimacy of, of these moments when you're being kissed and caressed and comforted by these ancient spirits.

I just said, “Okay, how do I find these rituals?” I find them extremely intimate, because it's not just the topics that are quite intimate but it's also just the physical closeness of being comforted by the spirit. And so that was the answer to my question of how to depict spirituality, it has to be through intimacy. And so the film is, in a way, my search for spirituality in life in general. And that's why I really needed to show these intimate moments between people looking at each other. Kids kind of falling asleep on each other in the back of the bus or Ze noticing that his sister is glowing from the pregnancy. It's these intimate interactions, where you don't even have to talk. It's in the way that you look at each other and see each other and acknowledge each other's pain and happiness. And so these moments were my way of depicting spirituality.

On the challenges of making a debut film Lkhagvadulam Purev-Ochir says: 'At the end of the day, the film is dying and being reborn at so many different stages, and you just have to trust this natural death and rebirth process'
On the challenges of making a debut film Lkhagvadulam Purev-Ochir says: 'At the end of the day, the film is dying and being reborn at so many different stages, and you just have to trust this natural death and rebirth process'

These rituals are where ancient ancestral spirits are coming down to your body. So it's about also being in conversation with people who are no longer present, that's the type of spirituality that is present in Shamanism. And then it goes further to our intimate conversations with the cosmos with the sun, the moon, the river and the mountains. So that's basically the spirituality that the film is trying to depict. It's intimacy.

On a practical level, how it was for you to step up from making shorts like Mountain Cat and Snow In September to features. Was anything that you thought you would take forward from the experience to your next project?

LPO: To be honest, it's really recent. We finished shooting the film in the first week of December 2022. And the post production still feels recent, and I still am kind of reeling from the shoot. But, I think, it's really just to trust the process. Because there was so much worrying in this film on my part, you know, is this going to work? Is that going to work? At the end of the day, the film is dying and being reborn at so many different stages, and you just have to trust this natural death and rebirth process.

You live in Lisbon, Portugal, now. Do you find that the fact that you have a geographical distance from Mongolia helps in terms of getting a perspective of what you want to encapsulate about the country?

LPO: It really does, because when I'm away from Mongolia, I always feel so nostalgic towards it, so filled with emotion towards my country. Then when I'm in Mongolia, I'm just caught up in the everyday madness of the craziness that is Ulaanbaatar city. I always feel like I'm kinder to my country when I'm away from it and I feel like I can write more with my third eye. Instead of depending on my two eyes, and kind of being very, very practical, I guess I can look inside. Or, as I like to say, use my third eye, my spiritual eye.

How did you go about casting, especially as you’re not based in Mongolia?

LPO: It started with videos. I was inspired by doing a workshop by Asghar Farhadi at another festival. I was starting to cast for Ze during that time. And I asked him, how do you start your casting process? And he was saying, “Well, I ask for videos”, and I was like, “Excellent, I'm going to do that”. Then he said, “I don't watch them, I listen to them”. And that's kind of what I did with my videos. I started to just close my eyes and listen to them talk. And sometimes I would have them recite poems and things like that. And that was actually really helpful, because the ear never lies. There's something about the ear that catches the truth where eyes can deceive.

For a young actor to be playing a Shaman, that must be quite a challenge in a way, because, as you say, it is a spiritual thing in Mongolia, so it must be quite daunting.

LPO: Yes. There are two aspects he needed to carry. The first being this naiveness, this innocence because it was super important for me that this is a film about transitioning from a certain age. So the film needed to start out with this total innocence, the complete opposite of adult. I needed something in his presence that was believable as still a child in a way. But at the same time, he needed to be believable, as being the one that was chosen to carry the spirit with him.

Lkhagvadulam Purev-Ochir on school in City Of Wind: 'It's symbolic. I don't think this is a realistic depiction of school in Mongolia, it's more the feeling of it'
Lkhagvadulam Purev-Ochir on school in City Of Wind: 'It's symbolic. I don't think this is a realistic depiction of school in Mongolia, it's more the feeling of it'
He needed to have some kind of an old soul, as well. So it's kind of these two opposing values that the protagonist needs to carry. And for that reason, it was quite difficult. In fact, I didn't find my main character until really late in the game. He just appeared in my life and I really attribute that to the spirits. I just say, okay, he was sent. Because he was also an amateur, he had just come out of high school. It was just in the right place at the right time.

Speaking of high school, did you like it, because schooling does not come off lightly in this film.

LPO: This is more or less my experience of school in Mongolia, because when I was a teenager, I moved to America and got to experience school in a completely different way. The emotion connected to the scenes of in the school is really my emotions toward school in Mongolia. The scenes in the school are more towards the symbolic side, symbolic of the pressure of society, how it feels to be young, and how it feels to be kind of in a militant kind of way to be prepared for success. This pressure is so high. It's so high in Asian countries in general, it's not just Mongolia. ButI really feel that the kids in Mongolia are exhausted by the time they finish high school. And when they come to the west, I mean, it's so light comparatively, young people are so much lighter. In Mongolia everything is so serious.I say it's more symbolic. I don't think this is a realistic depiction of school in Mongolia, it's more the feeling of it.

Now you’re heading to Toronto straight after Venice. Looking to the future, are you thinking of telling more Mongolian stories or European ones now that you’re living here? What do you hope to do?

LPO: I'm always going to make films in Mongolia, that is always where my stories are, it comes naturally. But I'm a filmmaker, I'm a person of the world. I do want to make films elsewhere, although I'm not quite sure about writing them, because I really believe that the writing has to come from more of a personal space. 'm looking to just make more films. I mean, the making of this film was years long in the process. And I'm just really hoping that the next one doesn't take, you know, five more years or six more years. I just love being on set. So I'm really open minded.

I'm starting to write my next film in Mongolia I have three projects that I'm hopefully trying to develop at the same time. They're actually more about parent child relationships, the next one I have in mind is more of a father-son relationship. My editor was saying that the themes that I explore are more primitive in the sense that it's always like these relationships between people, about family and about death and birth. Not just relationships, but it's like the colour of the relationship is also really important to me. I need to explore with my films something that cannot be explained in words, something that can only be captured by a feeling. So it can be ambivalence, but it can also be an emotion or an experience, like it can be love and hatred at the same time.

City Of Wind will screen at Toronto Film Festival on September 7, 12, 13 and 17

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