Features Live Action Movies

If Only I Could Hibernate
(Baavgai Bolohson)

Director – Zoljargal Purevdash – 2023 – Mongolia, France, Switzerland, Qatar – Cert. 12a– 96m


A gifted Mongolian boy is torn between providing for his siblings and pursuing his studies – out in UK cinemas on Friday, April 19th

Teenager Ulzii (Battsooj Uurtsaikh) lives with his mum and his three younger siblings in the yurt district of Ulaanbaataar, Mongolia’s capital city, their father having long since disappeared. Mum (Ganchimeg Sandagdorj) is illiterate and struggles to find work, and there is much antagonism between her and Ulzii, who is going through the school system his mother never experienced and took money from his summer job to buy sneakers before giving the remainder to his mum, who needs it to buy coal for their yurt’s stove to keep the family warm in severe, subzero wintry conditions. Sometimes it’s all too much for their mum, who often gets drunk at night.

In class, Ulzii is the star pupil at physics, often completing complex equations using solutions his teacher wouldn’t expect from anyone less than two years older. His teacher (Batzorig Sukhbaatar), finding a prodigy on his hands, starts to coach him to do well in the National exams in order to win a free university scholarship to study physics, which the boy wouldn’t otherwise be able to afford. With his own aptitude and his teacher’s encouragement, Ulzii begins to see this as a real possibility and takes up his teacher’s offer of extra coaching to help the boy achieve his goal.

However, failing to find work in the city, their mother resolves to move the entire family back to the countryside where she grew up, as she can always get work in the forest there. Which would mean moving her children, including Ulzii, out of the school. He resists, and in the end she leaves on her own, taking her youngest child with her and leaving the two older ones in his care.

Now Ulzii is faced with the challenge of earning money for coal to keep the stove burning. He manages for a while by removing wood from the abandoned house nearby, but soon takes up an offer from his best friend, whose father gives him an illegal job working alongside his crew of loggers to cut down trees and chop up wood. This makes him the money he needs to buy coal, but he has to bunk off school to do the work and, unable to stay awake in class, starts to fall behind on his studies…

It’s a charming film from local filmmaker Purevdash, who herself lives in the city’s yurt area and wanted to bring the conditions of the people living there to wider attention. The piece is nicely cast and all the children are quite winsome to watch, but it is lead teen Uurtsaikh who has to carry the film, and he’s a natural, completely convincing as the quiet, studious type.

His character is capable of prejudice when it’s revealed by a girl he quite likes that his teacher was transferred from his previous school for getting one of the girls he taught pregnant, a fact the boy later uses against his teacher when caught between the demands of both studying for his education and earning money to buy coal. Other characters include an elderly man (Davaasamba Sharaw) and his wife (Sukhee Lodonchuluun) who, once they become aware the boy and his family are in dire need, help out by giving them coal.

The film emits much the same warm, fuzzy glow as did Lunana: a Yak in the Classroom (Pawo Choyning Dorji, 2022) and is similarly likeable. At the same time, like that other film, it highlights the day-to-day living conditions of schoolchildren in a part of the world not familiar to us, and the difficulties they face. Neither film is particularly po-faced, and both are enjoyable enough to watch.

If Only I Could Hibernate is out in cinemas in the UK on Friday, April 19th.


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