If Only I Could Hibernate (2023)

If Only I Could Hibernate written, directed and produced by Zoljargal Purevdash is an involving, behind-the-scenes look at pressing issues in Mongolia, with an ecological message, seen through the life of an endearing teenager.

Youth in a Cold Climate

by Alexa Dalby

If Only I Could Hibernate

CAUTION: Here be spoilers

Mongolia is cold in winter. Very cold. Minus 35-degrees cold. And the impossible wish in the title by one of the children refers to it.

In its snow-covered capital Ulanbaattar, 15-year-old schoolboy physics prodigy Ulzil (endearing Batsooj Uurtsaikh) lives in a yurt, despite being in a city, with his mother and four siblings. His widowed mother (Ganchimeg Sandagdorj) has a drink problem and says she cannot provide for them on her own, which leaves Ulzil as the sensible one although he is so young. He is taken under the wing of his sympathetic physics teacher (Batzorig Sukhbaatar).

But when his mother returns to the country with the youngest child and the three older children are left behind to fend for themselves, Ulzil leaves school despite being a favourite to win a scholarship in a nationwide physics competition, so that he can earn money to feed his siblings from illegal logging work. But as time passes he can’t do enough.

It’s a fascinating first film from Zoljargal Purevdash, interviewed here on Arri

and the first Mongolian film in the Official Selection at Cannes.

The issues in Ulanbaattar, covered in the film, seem to be air pollution from the coal stoves used to heat and cook in the yurts, with smoke reduction kits provided by the local authority dependent on electricity, illegal deforestation, urbanisation, urban poverty and polarisation between the wealthier class in modern apartments and those living in yurts, the contrast between modernity and the survival of traditions (as in healing) and education of the next generation being necessary for Mongolia to develop. Of course, there’s some traditional music and throat singing on the soundtrack by composer Johanni Curtet, but subtly. It’s the French ethnomusicologist’s first time scoring a film, but his Mongolian string instrumentals of doshpuluur and mouth harp during scenes in the yurt districts blend in inventively with beatbox in the city settings and throat singing in the countryside.

If Only I Could Hibernate is a very competently made, engrossing film. Outstanding cinematographer Davaanyam Delgerjarga has done wonders with freezing Ulanbaattar. Watch this film to see what is going on in the rest of the world. It sounds grim but it’s really not.

Puevdash won several festival prizes for her 2020 short Stairs, also set in Ulaanbaatar, about a disabled man struggling to overcome daily obstacles. She says she made If Only I Could Hibernate to provide hope and inspiration for the young people of Mongolia: “This is a bitter story to tell, but through the story of this teenager’s struggle for survival, I wanted to suggest the solution of an equal chance to get a good education for every kid.”

If Only I Could Hibernate premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in Un Certain Regard, screened at the BFI London Film Festival and is released on 19 April 2024 in the UK and Ireland.@ConicFilm

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