A surrealist epic set in the frozen steppes of Mongolia may sound like a cinematic meal of wheat germ and mashed yeast but, along with ill-advised comparisons to Fellini, it is a misleading notion. Khadak is about people struggling with ancient customs crowded out by modernity, survival in harsh landscapes, and the eternal pull between destiny and desire.
Bagi (Batzul Khayankhyarvaa), a young nomad, wrestles with his destiny to become a shaman. When his family’s herd is stricken by a plague sweeping the steppes, they are relocated to a bleak mining town. Bagi saves the life of coal thief Zolzaya (Tsetsegee Byamba) and they embark upon a quest to reveal the truth behind the plague, a government conspiracy to extinguish the nomad way of life.
Summarizing this kind of film, beautiful and affecting, mysterious and resonant, is like trying to describe a dream. You may get the clothes right but you’ll fail in describing the perfume.
Comparisons to cinematic ringmaster Fellini undercut the triumph of directors Peter Brosens and Jessica Hope Woodworth. While the maestro concocted eye-boggling spectacles, Brosens and Woodworth conduct a quiet, somber parade.
The urge to compare the filmmakers is understandable, as Khadak provides an escalating feast of rich, dislocating imagery. However, instead of parlour tricks and showy sleight-of-hand, the directors engage in a kind of kitchen sink magical realism. The result is a fragile, dream-like beauty that is still rooted in the silt and squeak of the every day. Whether in the frozen tundra or the desolate ennui of an industrial village, spirits may take flight but there is no doubt that the laws of gravity apply.
Cinematic ancestry is more evident in the films of Theodorous Angelopoulos (The Weeping Meadow, Ulysses’ Gaze, Eternity and a Day). There is an equal patience on display, waiting for characters to approach or retreat from the frame. Bagi and his family struggle to wedge themselves into alternate landscapes with mixed results.
Here the directors have wisely chosen not to romanticize their characters or settings. So often films of this ilk (that is to say those about a remote civilization crafted by Westerners), lean toward eager exaltation of a ‘pure’ or ‘simple’ way of life that smacks of condescension. Here the filmmakers offer respect by asking questions for which there are no easy answers.
“The souls of the ancestors are dreaming of us,” Bagi’s grandfather says early on. In many ways, the film is a lyrical dirge to a passing way of life, a song for the passing of a known way of life and the fear of the unknown. It is only fitting, then, that the visual language becomes increasingly jarring and oblique. The future is uncertain, particularly for a young man struggling with his destiny, but if the intangible is embraced then the sky is indeed the limit.
Khadak remains elusive even in retrospect. Recalling the film is like grabbing at the mists of a dream. Surprisingly, this does not diminish the effect of the film. The perfume of it lingers, sweet and ineffable, yet profound and evocative.
The lone detraction on this disc is the only extra, a making of featurette that provides brief commentary. They are words ostensibly offered to unravel the complexities of the film. The only accomplishment of the short is the reduction of the inexpressible to the picayune.
If you are intent on learning the meaning of the title and the blue scarves that flutter symbolically through the film, then watch it. But I think the journey is more enlightening if the path remains unmarked. That is when we discover as much about the terrain as we do about ourselves.