It's a little sad that the only recent Pan-Asian cinematic takes on Mongolia have been either about life in its barren desert or the story of historical figure Genghis Khan. While the Genghis Khan stories have been hit-and-miss (one was nominated for an Academy Award, and the other was an embarrassing flop for everyone involved), the desert films possess enough poetic exoticism and beautiful shots for oversea audience to eat up. Chinese-Korean director Zhang Lu's Desert Dream is such a film.
Filmed completely in the Mongolian desert, Desert Dream portrays its setting as a desolate but beautiful place where life moves at the slowest pace possible. This would explain why Zhang tells the story with the quiet, sometimes tedious style that has given film festival films a bad name for mainstream moviegoers. In a related note, Desert Dream screened in competition at the 2007 Berlin Film Festival.
Contemporary stories about Mongolia are few and far in between, and the film does highlight an interesting profession that not many people may know about. To prevent the ever-eroding desert sand from covering the steppe, there are people who spend their days just planting trees all over it. Hungai (Bat-Ultzii) is such a man, and he is so devoted to his job that he's unwilling to leave the steppe to give his daughter proper treatment for her hearing loss. Finally, his wife decides to take her on her own, leaving Hungai by himself in the deserted village.
That same night, another woman (Seo Jung) and her son (Shin Dong-Ho) arrive at his home. They're North Korean refugees who are walking across Mongolia to reach South Korea, which is apparently a normal route for similar refugees. One night's stay becomes an extended co-existence despite their obvious language barrier, as Hungai begins to bond with the boy. Initially cold and distant, even the woman, whose husband was shot dead during the escape, begins to develop a liking towards their host.
Zhang and cinematographer Kim Seong-Tae only use camera pans to the right or left to create movement with their frame, and always shoot each scene from a certain distance. This technique is used to show character reactions, to follow moving objects, or simply to provide a nice pan across the location. The technique gives the film a distinct visual style throughout, and foreshadows a final shot that is more impressive on a technical level than an artistic one. However, Zhang doesn't give his actors any close-up, forcing the viewers to observe everything from a distance. As a result, viewers not used to such arthouse film technique may find themselves as detached as the camera itself.
Fortunately, Zhang does have a story that becomes increasingly involving as the slow two hours progresses. Since the language barrier prevents his characters from verbally communicating, Zhang builds the bond between Hungai and his visitors purely through action and visuals. Zhang also uses the slow pace to his advantage, slowly breaking down these characters' defenses and convincingly developing some kind of love between them. Even though Hungai shows very little emotion throughout the film, his drive to protect the woman and her son is nevertheless believable, and it even makes him a likable character despite his indifference towards his real family.
However, the pace is also Zhang's biggest weakness as a scriptwriter. He pushes the story to its bloated running time with digressions into these characters' primitive desires and random shots of people doing things in the desert. While it helps further develop these characters, the plot of Desert Dream is actually still rather thin. The film could easily have been stronger with some trims to strengthen the focus on the central story.
Despite any flaws, Desert Dream is always visually appealing. Zhang's style allows the film to include extremely beautiful shots of the empty Mongolian desert steppe, and watching the film on the biggest screen possible is a basic requirement. The visual appeal may even help viewers forget the tedious storytelling as they get sucked into the visuals (an experience I had when watching Wong Kar Wai's 2046 on the big screen). In my opinoin, tedious pacing and detached visual style are no longer valid criticisms when it comes to festival-friendly art films - they're merely statements of fact.
Zhang's storytelling style is perfectly appropriate for his setting, as life really does seem to be that slow in the Mongolian Desert. Whether one can find the drama between the lines in Desert Dream purely depends on the viewers' ability to look past all the stigmas of arthouse cinema. Those that have that ability will likely let themselves get lost in the film's world and find a sometimes affecting tale of intercultural bond. However, those who don't have it will likely fall asleep in their seats. This is a case where both views are perfectly understandable.
(Kevin Ma, 2008)