Lkhagvadulam Purev-Ochir won the Orizzonti Award for Best Short Film at last year’s Venice International Film Festival with her captivating Snow in September, which focuses on a teenage boy forced to reckon with a changed stance on intimacy and relationships after an encounter with an older woman. This year, she returns to the Biennale with her feature film debut, Ser Ser Salhi (City of Wind). Here we get a character study of Ze (Tergel Bold-Erdene), a studious and well-behaved 17-year old who spends his spare time working as a shaman. An intriguing conceit that instantly pays off from the outside, as we get some fantastic physical and vocal work from Bold-Erdene as the shaman, to the point where that spiritual drive that Ze harnesses to help local members of the community becomes infectious to the audience, too.
This job (though Ze insists it is more than that), brings him into contact with fellow teenager Maralaa (Nomin-Erdene Ariunbyamba, who also starred in Snow in September), whose mother requests his help to provide spiritual support for her upcoming heart surgery. Maralaa is in many ways the antithesis of Ze; free-spirited and refusing to let her heart ailment deter her from living life to its fullest. Ze remarks on her new heart artery as being akin to a Terminator. The more time they spend with one another, the more feelings they develop, and there is a real sense of fresh rapport and earnest energy these two actors bring to every interaction, from the casual buildup to the passionate love.
Purev-Ochir’s screenplay artfully weaves in Ze’s philosophical musings on the human spirit alongside Maralaa’s more playful, pragmatic stances on human nature into everyday teenage chit-chat. It’s a joy to watch the two engage in playful dalliances on playgrounds and shopping malls, even when their behaviour escalates into trouble and Ze starts stepping into a rebellious phase of sorts. Purev-Ochir matches her actors with some dynamic visual storytelling, playing them off some gorgeous Mongolian snowscapes, atmospherically lit interiors of smaller country houses and the bigger city. So dynamic is her visual storytelling that it can help one overlook some of the rougher patches in it, particularly when Ze’s behaviour starts to make slightly repetitive circles. Still, Vasco Carvalho Viana’s camera captures every ounce of these heavy drinking nights out to perfection. Another potential gripe comes in supporting characters fading into the background and getting a short shrift on their storylines. There’s great moments like Ze’s troubled sister imploring him to play music to help soothe her to sleep, or a ‘Neighbour Grandpa’ who often seeks Ze’s services as a shaman monologuing on a past love. But there remains some potential left on the table.
Slight reservations aside, City of Wind marks an extremely impressive feature film debut for Purev-Ochir. Expanding upon previous themes laid out in her work, she takes a coming of age story and finds ways of enlivening it and making it engaging with moments of levity and warmth, while also staying true to the quiet, understated nature of her protagonist and the way he changes in often random, messy directions, as it should be for any teenager.