White Flag

***1/2

Reviewed by: Amber Wilkinson

White Flag
"Cinematographer Lukas Graf finds contrast between the nights spent in the yurt, filled with textured fabric and candlelight, and the daytime wide open, dusty landscapes of the steppe." | Photo: Courtesy of POFF

The wide open plains of the Mongolian steppe provide the impressive backdrop for Batbayar Chogsom’s latest drama that hinges on a sapphic love story and an act of violence and which, in its best moments, has the spare feeling of a western. Naran (Urtnasan Erdenebayar) and Saran (Erdenetsetseg Enkhbayar), who have left the city behind for reasons that are gradually revealed, posing as sisters although their relationship is far more intimate. A prologue of sorts, however, indicates that problems lie on the horizon and soon Zorig (Samdanpurev Oyunsambuu), a detective from the city has arrived and becomes an increasingly frequent visitor as he conducts a hunt for a missing man.

The lesbian relationship is unusual for a Mongolian film and Batbayar tackles it sensitively and with a warmth that initially makes the pair's home feel like a sanctuary. There’s a strong sense of connection between Erdenebayar and Enkhbayar that serves the chemistry well, with Naran the hunter/gatherer and Saran a homemaker - an opposition that is reflected in their names, which mean Sun and Moon.

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Cinematographer Lukas Graf finds contrast between the nights spent in the yurt, filled with textured fabric and candlelight, and the daytime wide open, dusty landscapes of the steppe. Shots unfold in unhurried fashion in both environments, with horses and bikes crossing the landscape emphasising the women’s isolation and vulnerability. The scoring from Yukio Elien Lanz, with its traditional instruments and singing plus Ennio Morricone ambience, adds to the general western vibe.

Things become complicated. Firstly, there’s that city back story, which unfolds with some mystery but begins to distract from the drama of the present. Then, there’s the intricacy of the relationship that develops between the two women and Zorig. Initially it seems as though it becomes complex through transactionality but as the film progresses there is a suggestion that stronger emotions are at play. Zorig’s character feels rather lightly drawn given that his choices - and the reasons for them - will become crucial late in the game. Late decisions, involving another character, might also be a psychological manouevre too far for some but there’s no doubt that it makes for some striking imagery as the Batbayar gallops towards his conclusion.

Reviewed on: 01 Dec 2023
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Saran and Naran are young women in their early twenties trying to start a new life in the steppe as nomads. Despite their close bond, both are troubled by a ghost from the past.

Director: Batbayar Chogsom

Writer: Batbayar Chogsom

Starring: Erdenetsetseg Enkhbayar, Urtnasan Endenebayar, Samdanpurev Oyunsambuu

Year: 2023

Runtime: 96 minutes

Country: Mongolia, Switzerland, Japan

Festivals:

Black Nights 2023

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