"Khadak – The Color of Water": Magic and Realism By Mariola Wiktor

in 17th Oslo Films From The South

by Mariola Wiktor

If magic and realism can complement each other in one movie without any dissonance, then The Color of Water (Khadak) is a perfect combination of these two styles.

The film directed by the duo of Peter Brosens (Belgium) and Jessica Hope Woodworth (USA) starts like an anthropological story about everyday life of one Mongolian family. 17-year-old boy Bagi, his mother and grandfather live in a yurt somewhere in the endless steppe, in keeping with the rules followed by their ancestors for generations. What shapes their worldview and helps them to survive in extreme conditions of the steppe winter is the fusion of Mongolian shamanism and Tibetan Buddhism. The approach of the yurt’s occupants to the world is determined by a deep, spiritual relationship between people, nature and the sky, which is considered the final resort of truth and authority on good and evil. Bagi has extraordinary intuition and a gift for finding animals lost in the steppe, which marks him out to continue the shamanistic traditions handed down from generation to generation.

When this seemingly forgotten mini-community, living beyond time, is suddenly struck by the outside world, the folk and exotic tale turns into a drama of people brutally deprived of their previous lives. Within one day, under the pretext of detection of an epizootic, the Mongolian nomads are forced to leave their land, and their flocks of sheep and herds of horses. They are deported to town to live in horrid blocks of prefabricated concrete and to work in a local coal mine.

On top of this drama of ill-adaptation to life in rapidly industrialized Mongolia, there is the political context. The fabricated animal disease appears to be only a convenient pretext for corrupt local authorities and the military who blindly following Russian methods of ruling. The insidiously recruited cheap labor, transformed into a working team susceptible to ideological brainwashing, becomes a tasty morsel for communist authorities of Mongolia, a satellite state of the Russian Federation. There are many silent but convincing scenes in which Mongolian nomads are expressing their disobedience in the face of authorities. For example blinding the military by the pieces of mirrors or a rebellious attitude and multitudinous presence of residents on the roofs of the buildings.

However, it’s not the political theme that seems to be most important here, but rather the spiritual journey of the rebellious Bagi, who rejects both the hypocrisy of the new unaccepted values and the burden of steppe shamanism. This state of being lost and the hero’s wandering in search of his own way is illustrated by surrealistic, static, sophisticated images, often filmed with a wide-angle lens by Rimvydas Leipus (Lithuania). The unique music composed of Mongolian and European sounds also contributes to this impact. Without the whole odyssey and individual human tragedies, the boy wouldn’t have managed to restore his relations with nature and animals, not to mention his undermined faith that man is a part of a great cycle of world creation.

In Mongolian ‘khadak’ means sky-blue scarf. This symbol is present throughout the movie and at almost every critical moment in the lives of the main characters. This is the metaphor of that mysterious force, the bond linking man with the rest of the universe, echoing the Cartesian phrase, “the starry sky above me and the moral law within me”. This is not a coincidence that one of the most impressive images appears when Bagi’s mirror (another important film motif) — causes blue sacred scarves to fall by the hundreds from the sky.

In the final scene, when Zolzaya, Bagi’s girlfriend, ties a sky blue scarf around the only remaining tree in the steppe, drops of rain come down from the sky onto its bark. According to Mongolian beliefs, this is the way the sky expresses its delight at reliance on nature. Water is life and rebirth. The beginning and, at the same time, the end of the earthly duration.

In The Color of Water the directors accomplished a very difficult task. They managed to make an inextricable connection between mysticism and politics, poetry and satire on contemporary, modernized Mongolia, epic family saga and a modern way of describing a world that vanishes only to come back to life. Khadak is brave and original cinema that becomes embedded in the memory and provokes reflection.