If Only I Could Hibernate: a beautifully crafted Mongolian drama

Its schematics may be obvious, but Zoljargal Purevdash’s debut about a gifted teenager living in the impoverished yurt district of Mongolia’s capital shows great ambition and promise.

15 April 2024

By Tom Charity

Battsooj Uurtsaikh, Nominjiguur Tsend and Tuguldur Batsaikhan as Ulzii, Tungaa and Erkhemee in If Only I Could Hibernate (2023)
Sight and Sound

Ethnography is deeply rooted in the traditions of the European film festival circuit and the arthouse sector that developed alongside it, a project espousing cultural curiosity and paying lip service to diversity, but somewhat shaded by post-colonial whitewashing. Nevertheless, it has to be an encouraging sign that filmmakers from Bhutan (The Monk and the Gun, 2023), Nepal (Shambhala, 2024) and, in this case, Mongolia are finally getting homegrown films noticed at an international level. 

It may be a French co-production but If Only I Could Hibernate is clearly a labour of love for first-time writer-director-producer Zoljargal Purevdash, who grew up in the same impoverished Yurt District of capital city Ulaanbaatar as her 15-year-old protagonist, Ulzii. Working with the proverbial shoestring budget, a tiny crew, and a cast of children in temperatures often well below freezing, Purevdash capitalises on the reality that’s there for the taking: the smoky haze from the coal fires which are the yurts’ only heating; the way neighbourly favours slip into black market dealing; kids cheerfully oblivious to the poverty around them. 

Despite its grim environment, Purevdash’s film mostly eschews miserabilism. The French musician and ethnomusicologist Johanni Curtet contributes a lively score, combining beatbox, throat-singing, blues and folk. Cinematographer Davaanyam Delgerjargal adopts the handheld camera style synonymous with documentary authenticity, but the images have a rich, saturated lustre which invites us to hope that good-hearted, earnest Ulzii – a gifted physics student whose qualities are recognised by his teacher – will succeed in winning a university scholarship. In order to do so, he has to override the objections of his single, illiterate mother and fend for his siblings when she takes the baby and returns to the farm labourer’s life she knows. 

If the story’s schematics are obvious – education is empowering; poverty, crippling – that doesn’t mean they’re not also fundamentally true. Where the movie finds some psychological grit is in Ulzii’s hubris: his proud refusal to ask his kindly neighbours for help, even though he’s forced to skip school and steal timber just to pay for his asthmatic younger brother’s medicine. Understandably angry with his mother (who is still granted one of the movie’s most haunting scenes), he’s unfailingly polite to other adults, sweetly demurring when offered payment for services rendered, no matter how badly he needs it. There are echoes of Antoine Doinel and Billy Casper in this determined, precious and precocious child, whose opportunities seem so unfathomably slim. 

 ► If Only I Could Hibernate is in UK cinemas 19 April.