Lkhagvadulam Purev-Ochir Interview – Director of ‘City of Wind’ / Available On Streaming Rental or Purchase


Lkhagvadulam Purev-Ochir’s debut feature City of Wind is many things. It’s a heartfelt coming-of-age story of a 17-year-old shaman, a poetic yet sobering portrait of contemporary Ulaanbaatar, and a love letter to Mongolia and its youth. It’s also the first Mongolian feature to be selected at the Venice and Toronto film festivals, as well as Mongolia’s submission for the Best International Feature Film in the 2024 Academy Awards. 

City of Wind follows Ze, a soft-spoken teenage shaman who’s trying to balance his scholastic and spiritual responsibilities. After he has a peculiar encounter with Maralaa, a girl with an impending heart surgery, everything in his life seems to change. What follows from then on is a slow-burning growing-pains story presented through a skillful use of subtlety and ambiguity.

We talked with Lkhagvadulam over a video call about her way of working with performers, Mongolian names, coming-of-age stories, and the ability of film to capture transformation.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Projektor: City of Wind is developed out of your first short film “Mountain Cat,” in which the protagonist was the girl. Why did you decide to make Ze, the shaman boy, the protagonist in the feature?

Lkhagvadulam Purev-Ochir: Actually, “Mountain Cat” was developed after the feature film script was written in 2018. The world really isn’t aware of Ulaanbaatar as a city and their vision of Mongolia is very limited. Also, if you’re a filmmaker, you don’t have a business card; you have a short film that has hopefully traveled to festivals. So, I actually had to make “Mountain Cat” as a proof of concept in order to give an idea of the location and the characters. As to the change in protagonist, people read the script and they ask, “But you’re a woman. Why don’t you write from the perspective of the woman?” So, I did a test and thought that if I was truly inspired to take on her perspective, then I would just change the script and I wasn’t so I didn’t.

The two lead performers, Tergel Bold-Erdene and Nomin-Erdene Ariunbyamba, have a very strong chemistry. How did you cast them? What was it about Tergel that made him perfect for Ze?

The role of Ze was difficult to cast because it had to be someone innocent, childish, awkward, and nerdy. At the same time, he had to be believable as someone who was chosen to have the responsibility of carrying the ancestral spirits. When I met Tergel, there was something in his face and eyes that was constantly transforming and yet he’s completely awkward, which was suitable. I asked him to talk about his girlfriend, what he likes about her, and how he feels about her. Then I asked him to recite the poem “My Little Lamb” because I needed to see if I could feel the love and affection he has for his girlfriend. He recited the poem two more times after we talked about the saddest moment in his life and something that really makes him angry. The second time, he was sobbing and the third time, he recited it in a intensely angry way. This was not about the drama. What I wanted to check was whether or not he had access to his own emotions and that is very difficult for men, even for actors. After meeting Tergel, I knew he was an absolutely innocent teenager and, at the same time, that he could portray something profound.

For Nomin, she’s just too good. There’s honestly nothing bad I can say about her. She’s extremely dedicated, professional, and talented. Because she comes from an acting family and was a second-year acting student, my only fear was the relationship between an amateur and a professional. To be honest, Tergel and Nomin kind of hated each other. Because Tergel is a jokester in real life; he doesn’t take anything seriously and makes fun of everything. And Nomin takes everything very seriously. She comes on time and she’s ready to commit one hundred percent. I’d go to the restroom and come back and they’d be fighting. Very close to the shoot, I was not sure if this was going to work. But at the same time, there was tension and that’s something you can’t fake on camera. Also, these are two characters who are not meant to be with each other; they’re not Romeo and Juliet, you know? It’s the strangeness and the intimacy of their encounter that leads them to have this relationship. They’re not immediately enamored with each other anyway. 

“I think the nice thing about cinema in general is that it really is able to capture something that’s transforming. I don’t think you can really do that with any other art form.”

Did Tergel have any suggestions and ideas for the character that made it into the film? (Note: Tergel won the Orizzonti Award for Best Actor at the Venice Film Festival.)

I really tried to incorporate as much of Tergel and Nomin as possible into the characters. In rehearsals, I was just watching them interact. I say, “You want to live in an apartment, you want to live in the countryside. Now you guys are on a date. Go.” And I tried to update the scene according to their body language, quirks, and personalities. For example, for the scene in the hospital where he meets her after her heart surgery, I ask them, “You guys are meeting for the first time. What would you say?” Tergel listens to her heart and then says, “You’re like a Terminator.” That’s completely Tergel’s line. So, I depend a lot on my actors and rehearsals to make sure that the lines fit their mouth, their bodies, and their relationship. 

Your films are all coming-of-age stories. What attracts you to this genre? In fact, other recent Mongolian films that traveled on the festival circuit, such as The Sales Girl and If Only I Could Hibernate, are also coming-of-age stories. Do you think there’s some kind of correlation between this genre and Mongolian cinema as a nascent developing cinema?

I remember one of my producers, Ariunaa, saying that a coming-of-age story is like a rite of passage for a filmmaker. Filmmaking is personal, so maybe filmmakers go back and get inspired by their childhood. That’s just me taking a guess. As for me, I made “Mountain Cat” and “Snow in September” in direct or indirect relation to City of Wind, so they naturally ended up being about teenagers. I wanted to make these films because I like the topics of transformation and change. What I’m trying to do is capture a feeling, not make a statement. It doesn’t happen that you sleep one day and wake up an adult the next day. Something is transforming there, something that cannot be grasped with words. I think the nice thing about cinema in general is that it really is able to capture something that’s transforming. I don’t think you can do that with any other art form. Maybe dance and performance. At the beginning of the film, Ze is one way and at the end, my hope is that the audience thinks he’s in a completely difference place. 

What was the main difficulty when making City of Wind?

It was such a personal journey for me. I learned a lot about myself, about what I want from cinema, and what I want for my next film. It’s hard to describe but I pride myself on being a person who’s like water in the sense that I try to adjust, adapt, and transform myself. But what I realized while making this film is that water has volume and weight. And my main challenge was understanding this volume that I have and just being more focused on myself. Part of it was because I had a very young child and my mind and body was constantly divided. 

The film was originally titled Ze. Why was the title changed and why name the character Ze? It’s quite a unique name for a Mongolian.

I’m so bad at naming characters, so when I started writing I asked my little sister to give me a name that is hip and without meaning. She said that her classmates usually give nicknames to each other with the first letters of the last name and the first name. I don’t know if anybody got this but when Ze is doing his second ritual, he says, “I’m the messenger called Erdene, who sits supporting the right knee of my father named Zorigt.” So, his real name is Erdene Zorigt. I was actually telling my producers that if anyone got this, let’s give them a candy or something. Also, Ze was always the project title. I never meant it to be the title of the film. I’m one of those people who name their films really late. Because for me, a film is something that keeps growing, dying, and reawakening. I can only face what I have at the very end and name it. 

What kind of stories are you interested in telling in the future? Do you think about making films outside of Mongolia?

I have a couple of films in mind that I will start writing. All are set in Mongolia or about Mongolia. For me as a filmmaker, location is super important. I pay very specific attention to space and how it’s used within the story in an authentic way. It’s really difficult for me to imagine writing about any other country, even after having lived for five, six years in Portugal. My opinion is that living in a country for five years full-time is the absolute minimum for someone to really start writing a story about that country.

I’m open to making films in other countries but I wouldn’t write it. I wouldn’t trust myself to write a story [set] anywhere except in Mongolia. I’m now looking for opportunities to be able to shoot in different countries. Crime [genre] is one of the things I can see myself doing and I have an American manager with whom we’re trying to get a project off the ground. I miss being on set and directing. Set energy is just something else; it’s addictive and magical. 

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