A Thumbs Up Media Review
Urga (Close to Eden) (Video)
By Nikita Mikhalkov
Reviewed by Katherine Czapp
This French and Russian collaboration was filmed in 1989, on the eve of perestroika and the collapse of the Soviet Union, a coincidence of history that has inadvertently added an extra dimension to the cross-cultural depictions of a contemporary story about a vanishing way of life.
Gombo, Pagma and their three children along with their grandmother are ethnic Mongols living on the steppe of what is now Chinese territory. The family are traditional herders living a comfortable, if isolated life much as their forebears did, in stunningly beautiful terrain. Under the Chinese one-child law there is an exception for ethnic minorities, who may have two children. Already exceeding the law by one child, Pagma knows her third child will be denied school attendance and other government services.
Quite unexpectedly coming into their lives at this moment is Sergei, a Russian truck driver working in China as a way to earn a decent wage he couldn’t find back home. Sergei’s truck has broken down within shouting distance of the Mongols’ yurt, and Gombo comes to his rescue.
The film depicts a wealth of details that emphasize the differences between contemporary Russian and Mongol cultures, from Sergei’s numerous metal teeth, to the quiet pleasure Gombo and his son take in gazing at a dragonfly together, to the meal of a slaughtered sheep prepared for Sergei while he stays the night with Gombo’s family. The cinematography is captivating in its beauty and scope, and allows small glimpses to reveal much in Gombo and Pagma’s lives.
Gombo and Sergei become friends, and spend a day together in the nearby Chinese town where Sergei must return his truck, and Gombo is sent by Pagma on a mission to purchase condoms and a television set to help bring the family up to date.
The emotional climax of the film centers around Sergei’s anguish and disgust at how little he is able to provide for his own family while working at a grueling job far from home, severed from his own heritage, haunted by the losses of several wars. Gombo’s life, by comparison, is one of deep connection to the land, his family and an enduring way of life.
Gombo’s trip to town stirs deep memories and forebodings for him as well, which are played out in a wonderfully surreal dream sequence in which his ancestors materialize with warnings about the changes his life may take if he succumbs to the temptations of modernity.
Close to Eden is a funny, wry and wise commentary on indigenous peoples, cross-cultural friendships, and the encroachment of harsh global economic realities. It is rare that a film with such an economical script can encompass issues as wide-ranging as the politics of modern Mongolia to the richness of life unaffected by western values. Gombo and his family—all cast from local native Mongolians—are captivating in their naturalness and their affinity to their surroundings, and make each moment of the film a gem.
Look for the film in video format (a Miramax production with English subtitles) in your public library’s collection or video rental store with a well-stocked foreign section. Amazon does sell the newly-issued DVD, but be sure it is the English-subtitled version; only the Russian version was available at this writing.
This article appeared in Wise Traditions in Food, Farming and the Healing Arts, the quarterly magazine of the Weston A. Price Foundation, Summer 2007.