Guest Post: Mongols on the International Film Stage

Marissa Smith

Mongols on the International Film Stage: Negotiating the International Relations of Mongolia By Means of Their Understanding by Others

During a press conference in Berlin March 3rd with Chancellor Merkel, President Elbegdorj quipped, “Die Mongolen sind wieder da, aber mit friedlichen Absichten!” (The Mongols are back, but with friendly intentions!”) In meetings coinciding with the International Tourism Fair (ITB) in Berlin, Mongolian officials called on Germany to support further involvement in Mongolian transport infrastructure, perhaps involving Lufthansa as well as rail projects needed to access natural resources (particularly rare earth minerals that Germany has expressed interest about in recent years).

President Elbegdorj’s comment reveals the quality of the tourism fair and government talks as not simply Mongolia’s asking for development aid or marketing its natural resource commodities, but as Mongolia beckoning foreign partners while managing and capitalizing on these partners’ own strong impressions and ideas about Mongolia and Mongols. Since Mongolia’s Democratic Revolution (now a period of twenty-five years), films about Mongols have been another example of how Mongolians often use and negotiate with, rather than flatly deny the validity of, understandings that others have of them.

With Wolf Totem’s recent release and box office success in France, China, and Mongolia, Mongolia’s presence on the international film stage continues to demonstrate how Mongolians maintain involvement in creative works spearheaded by others and use them to build further international relations, but ones that usually remain un-depicted in international popular culture.

Directed by Jean Annaud (Seven Years in Tibet, The Name of the Rose, The Bear, Enemy at the Gates) and produced by China’s largest state film enterprise (China Film Group), Wolf Totem is based on the semi-autobiographical novel by Lu Jiamin, who penned the book using the pseudonym Jiang Rong. Translated into Mongolian in 2010, the novel was a best-seller in Mongolia as well as in China and the United States. As in the case of Sergei Bodrov’s “Mongol,” however, only one of the lead actors was Mongolian, the female love interest (R. Ankhnam in Wolf Totem as Gasmaa, and Khulan Chuluun as Borte in Mongol). A few additional cast members (including Gasmaa’s husband Batu who dies around halfway through the film) were Mongols from China and Russia.

Early responses to the book and to the film in Mongolian online journalism and associated discussions have thus far not much elaborated on the lack of Mongolian actors per se, let alone how Chinese (and Russians, in the case of Mongol and Urga) frame relations with Mongolia and Mongols in terms of gender. (See Uradyn Bulag’s collections The Mongols at China’s Edge and Collaborative Nationalism in particular for this, and the study of these films for their insight into the Chinese and Russian sides of their relations with Mongolia is definitely further merited but beyond the scope of this post).

Rather, early discussions in the Mongolian context have:

  1. Emphasized the international character of the film and the role of Mongolians and Mongolia as part of a particular international endeavor and general international community. An American connection is made by citing director Jean Annaud as “Oscar-winning” and the participation of actors from France, Canada, and Australia (http://art.news.mn/content/205496.shtml) as well as China and Mongolia is noted. Most news stories coming up in a search of “Chonon Suld” (the title of the film in Mongolian) around the release are features about Mongolian actress R. Ankhnam, and comments of “amjilt khusii Ankhnam” (“wishing you success, Ankhnam”) are common in threads below articles about the film.
  2. Debated about the accuracy with which Mongolian culture is portrayed. It is within these discussions that (widely varying) comments about the Mongolness of Inner Mongols are made and (often very strong and violently put) critical statements of Mongol-Chinese relations made. See in particular the argumentative comments on an article describing a panel of academics’ denouncement of the film’s accuracy vis-à-vis Mongolian culture (http://mnb.mn/i/48377), and a piece comparing the making of Wolf Totem to that of Urga, in the sense that Mongolia disallowed production and China saw opportunity so the films were made in Inner Mongolia: http://id.news.mn/content/205935.shtml. Recall that “Mongol” was filmed in Kazakhstan after the Mongolian government also refused Bodrov’s script. Also here (http://yellow.news.mn/content/206205.shtml) is another opinion piece critical of the film’s representation of Mongolian practices that obliquely comments on the film’s reflection of Mongolian-Chinese relations more broadly. I would emphasize however, that comments approving of the film are prevalent, including encouragements that all Mongols see the film and “khiimor sergeene” (http://art.news.mn/content/205496.shtml).

In short, through ambivalence and debate about the accuracy of films about Mongolia and Mongols that have taken prominent positions in international popular culture, Mongolians reconsider thorny issues of national and international identity and relation among themselves while enticing foreigners to visit Mongolia as the truly authentic site of the timelessly pastoral and environmentally friendly. The film will undoubtedly spur tourists to visit this summer and in years to come.

Unfortunately, creative international relations like those involved in the making of Wolf Totem (for instance the involvement of Mongolian wolves and gazelles and Canadian animal trainers: http://china.org.cn/video/2014-07/03/content_32844923.htm, http://www.chinafile.com/reporting-opinion/environment/wolf-totem-trainer-sees-risks-rewards-hollywood-china) and Jean Annaud’s dramatic shift in relation to the Chinese government: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/02/24/arts/international/china-looks-west-to-bring-wolf-totem-to-screen.html?_r=0, http://www.latimes.com/entertainment/movies/la-et-mn-jean-jacques-annaud-wolf-totem-20150228-story.html#page=1http://www.hindustantimes.com/worldcinema/china-lifts-ban-on-jean-jacques-annaud-the-result-is-wolf-totem/article1-1323753.aspx) unfortunately remain largely unportrayed in international popular culture.

The converse is true of the Sundance-winning Genghis Blues, a point of reference for many Americans interested in Mongolia, while I have not known Mongolians to claim as their own (the film was made in and about Americans and Tuvans in Tuva). Mongolian-made films shown at international film festivals vary widely in this regard, yet the most prestigious awards go to those that maintain the illusion of Mongolians as isolated and timeless (The Story of the Weeping Camel) or undergoing a violation of this isolation and along with it the disruption of supposedly socially and environmentally critical tradition (Khadag).

In any case, being perceived as quaint and naive “grasslanders,” let alone marauding hordes (in both cases as essentially anti-international) compromises Mongolian’s ability to pursue international relationships as an experienced and developed partner, as it continues to drive hard bargains in international mining projects and seek a direct flight between Ulaanbaatar and Berlin operated by Lufthansa.

(Special thanks to “Olav” for helping me access the film! I also thank him and others for their conversations about Wolf Totem on Facebook.)

About Marissa Smith

Marissa J. Smith is a PhD Candidate in Anthropology at Princeton University. Her dissertation work concerns relationships of “international friendship” in Erdenet, Mongolia, which involve Russians as well as Americans, mining engineers as well as herders. Marissa works to bring this ethnographic work to bear in conversations on alterity and translation, nationalism, corporations, development, and social mobility, particularly between urban centers and so-called rural peripheries.

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1 Response to Guest Post: Mongols on the International Film Stage

  1. Marissa Smith says:

    Wolf Totem director Annuad to visit Mongolia, meet with President Elbegdorj, Speaker Enkhbold, and Mayor Bat-Uul: http://mongolia.gogo.mn/r/145498

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