Mongolian Cinema is amidst the most valuable, most passionate and the most…undiscovered amidst Asian Cinemas. Mongolia is one of Asia’s top movie producers with more than 50 titles released every year, and owns one of the best preserved cinema Archives of the world.
Birth of Mongolian Cinema has been turbulent though. Mongolia has been under Chinese control since Mongol Princes accepted Manchurian domination in 1691. In the early 20th century, the late Qing government encourages Han Chinese colonization of Mongolian lands. As a result, more than 500 shops open across the country and help importing cinema. The first public screenings are being organized as soon as 1903. With the fall of the Qing dynasty in 1911, Outer Mongolia declares independence and gets close to Bolshevik Russia. Prime Minister (Prince) Tögs-Ochiryn Namnansüren orders Russian movies to be screened throughout whole country. In 1921, Mongolian People’s Party (future Mongolian People’s Revolutionary Party) defeats last Chinese forces and proclaims independence. Mongolia becomes a Russian satellite stat, adopting Communist model without being officially occupied.
At that time, 86% of Mongols were nomadic shepherds. Advised by Soviet Union, the government decides to educate masses via cinema. Between 1925 and 1935, government creates infrastructures and trains future technicians and between 1935 and 1945, it founds Mongol Kino, the only national institution allowed to produce fiction features. Mongol Son (Ilya Trauberg) is the very first fiction feature produced and directed by Russians in collaboration with first Mongol technicians in 1935.
If movies were supposed to be entertaining, they also had to serve politics. They were submitted to very strict censorship throughout every single step of moviemaking: from scriptwriting to editing to music scoring. In case of any kind of insubordination, the directors had to reimburse the banned movie with their own money.
In the first 11 fiction features made between 1936 and 1945, propaganda includes denunciation of illiteracy, Manchurian values or any kind of religious belief and scripts promote social politics, collective efforts and (new) national heroes. Norjmaa’s Destiny (Natsagdorj Tumur, 1938) or The Awakening (Genden Sangijav, 1957) praise Occidental medicine over shamanism and New Year (Zandraa Tseveen, 1954) lauds collective work (in factory). Historical epics, like His name is Sükhbaatar (Collective, 1942) or Prince Tsogt (Collective, 1945) serves to forge a (new) national identity, focusing – amidst others – on historical characters such as Damdin Sükhbaatar, the “Mongol Lenine”, supposed to replace Genghis Khan in people’s hearts.
Soviet Union’s decision to stop financing other Communist countries’ cinema after World War Two results in total halt of Mongolian movie production between 1945 and 1954; but documentary filmmaker Zandraa Tseveen’s New Year launches a second golden age in 1954. The success of Our Song (Oyuun E., 1955) starts a trend for musical comedies, What Obstacles Are Becoming for Us? (Dorjpalam Ravjaa, 1956) a trend for modern melodrama ; If I had a horse (Dorjpalam Ravjaa, 1959) launches children movies and A Messenger of the People (Jigjid Dejid, 1959) feeds the audience’s passion for historical epics.
Beginning of the 1960s, first color movie The Golden Yurt (Dorjpalam Ravjaa, 1961) and social comedy Harmonica (Jamsran Bayandelger, 1963) gain tremendous successes and audiences confirm their interest for modern topics; a trend which continues during the following two decades with a series of fiction features focusing on smaller countryside communities’ difficult living conditions such as Sound of Engine (Sumkhuu Badrakh, 1974) and Mirage above Gobi Desert (Dorjpalam Ravjaa, 1980).
Sound of Engine
Five colors of rainbow
The 1980s feature some of Mongolia’s most mature cinematographic works, such as The Leading Wrestler Garuda (Jamyanguyn Buntar, 1984) where the authors liberate themselves from the existing power structures or the semi-experimental The Shadow (Begzlin Bajinnyam, 1986), which is the first fiction feature to deal with the historical (taboo) topic of the battle of Khalkhin Gol. Jigjidsuren Gombojav’s 1990/91 trilogy Close to death including Rock Tears, Warm Ashes and Traces of an existence, takes advantage of the confusing political era of that time to mention 1930s political purges and to denounce women abuse as one of the direct consequences of Communist politics.
Mirage above Gobi Desert
The Leading Wrestler Garuda
After The Soviet Union’s collapse and the end of Mongolian People’s Republic in 1992, the movie industry comes to a sudden halt: Mongol Kino’s Film studios close from one day to the other and 500 employees lose their job. Curiously, production increases from merely 4 – 8 movies made a year between 1936 and 1992 to 43 movies made during the sole year 1993 and 110 shot between 1992 and 1996. Anybody can shoot any kind of movie without fearing censorship anymore. Some business men even screen movies shot on video on a simple TV screen in private basements…But quantity doesn’t mean quality and the lush copies of latest American success shot without any kind of talent quickly tire audiences. Amidst the many releases, only women directors Uranchimeg Nansal’s The Rope (1993) and Byambasuren Davaa’s trilogy The Story of the Weeping Camel (2003), The Cave of the Yellow Dog (2005) and Two Horses of Genghis Khan (2011) are amidst the most interesting movies of that era.
Traces of an existence
Nowadays, Mongolia’s annual movie production output is of around 50 fiction features for 23 screens in Ulaanbaatar; but industry remains fragile. Government does not provide any kind of support and there is a lack of laws for proper distribution and copyrights. Training new talents remain sparse and only few people would know anything about International sales – but most local movies cannot compete yet with Asian or International titles; the average movie budget is of 100.000 € compared to several millions € for a South Korean or Japanese movie. The extraordinary documentary Passion (Byamba Sakhya, 2010) asks following question: wasn’t it better to direct a censored movie under Communist regime in perfect conditions, than to struggle to complete a movie in nowadays’ liberal country?
On the positive side, the young Mongolian country is full of energy and creativity; South Koreans are nowadays investing the market and sharing their knowledge and the quick technological evolution might introduce in near future a satellite system able to screen movies directly from a server to dozens of locations all throughout the country with reduced costs.
Meanwhile, Mongolia can look upon a very rich cultural heritage, which has remained invisible for many decades, but is absolutely necessary in order to build the future.