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If Only I Could Hibernate (Film Review)

3 min read

True to its neorealist foundations, If Only I Could Hibernate is a tough, unrelenting watch, with a harshness that is reflective of the freezing temperatures Ulaanbaatar residents live in. Despite the obvious poverty, however, there are moments of real levity; director Zoljargal Purevdash conjures up just as many emotions from shared family laughs as she does from hard-hitting , without ever fumbling the contrast between the two tones. This small and intimate gem sparkles with the vivacity and authenticity of life that is so very important to films such as this.

Set in the Yurt district of Ulaanbaatar, If Only I Could Hibernate follows the life of one family. In their small yurt live eldest child Ulzii (Battsooj Uurtsaikh), his mother (Ganchimeg Sandagdorj), and three siblings. They live below the poverty line and, in the brutal Mongolian winter, can only focus on keeping the yurt warm and feeding themselves. Told from the perspective of Ulzii and elevated by Uurtsaikh's compelling screen presence, If Only I Could Hibernate conjures up not just a vivid familial portrait, but a rich picture of Ulaanbaatar too. Rural and urban lifestyles are posited next to one another claustrophobically, as we see a largely nomadic society shifting into modernisation.

After Ulzii's mother leaves to find work in the countryside, the eldest child is left to take care of two of his siblings. He must provide for them financially—the welfare benefits don't stretch far—whilst also pursuing his own education, with the hope of getting a scholarship to study Physics at university. It is a dream that is so beautifully positioned next to the harsh realities of Ulzii's everyday life; Purevdash never makes out this dream to be unreasonable or unattainable, only threatened by his family commitments. Ulzii, still only a boy himself, is caught between education and employment. He can't do both.

Purevdash's decision to cast children from the Yurt districts in If Only I Could Hibernate is an inspired one. It gives the film a further neorealist edge that strengthens its authenticity, and in turn the story's emotions. Uurtsaikh is spectacular as Ulzii, bringing a boyish charm and moodiness to proceedings whilst also inhibiting a necessary maturity that stretches beyond his teenage years. His chemistry with Nominjiguur Tsend and Tuguldur Batsaikhan as his sister and brother is similarly impressive, allowing Purevdash to seamlessly sprinkle comedy into the austerity. At one point, as the three siblings shiver and share one small bed, they can only smile and laugh as one of the youngsters farts.

If Only I Could Hibernate doesn't always hit the wider thematic commentaries on Mongolian society. Scenes of protests about air pollution, for example, only fleetingly touch on this very real issue. For the most part though, Purevdash stingingly exposes flaws in her country's welfare system: social workers treat a visit to Ulzii's home less as a helpful visit and more as a checkbox exercise. What good is a smoke filter without coal or electricity? This engaging steeliness is apparent throughout If Only I Could Hibernate, and yet it's that inner warmth of kindness and human connection that ensures the film truly sparkles.

If Only I Could Hibernate releases in UK cinemas on 12th April 2024.