In Zoljargal Purevdash’s “If Only I Could Hibernate,” Ulzii isn’t just the ordinary next-door student who roams around the school corridor, waiting for the bell to ring. He is THE student who has a thing with physics. He is a Physics prodigy and seems to project a teenage representation of Sheldon from the American sitcom “The Big Bang Theory” without the element of comedy. All he wants is to be awarded a scholarship to one of the world’s best institutions. With arrogance coursing through his veins, he is confident that he has grasped the essence of education. What if that comes to a breaking point due to a family-driven aspect? 

Presented as Mongolia’s first entry to the Festival de Cannes under the Un Certain Regard Section, “If Only I Could Hibernate” tells the tale of teenage moral awakening using the formulae of a pressure test. It’s a portfolio of understanding the need to be independent at the age of achieving goals and merits while enduring difficult situations. Director Purevdash wears the hat of Newton as he touches upon the laws of life and shows the struggle of a teenage student by exploring the themes of poverty and responsibility. The director’s skillful direction transports us to a ride filled with cheeky teenage moments and burgeoning coming-of-age complications. 

At first glance, the joyful parts would make us happy, while the sad parts pushes us to stop and reflect. Ulzii’s fond memories of time spent playing with his siblings inspire a desire on his part to preserve that bond. It’s as if a carefree little kid inside Ulzii wants him to forget about his problems for a while. However, Ulzii’s sadness is typically communicated through his rage and silence. His outburst of anger towards his mother is indicative of his complex feelings about the effects of his mother’s alcoholism on the family. 

The film’s inclusion of retro and modern twist music often reminds me of the music in the 2018 film “House of Hummingbird” by Kim Bora. The chosen soundtracks brings forth a rustic feel of engagement and get the code of magnetism right on track. Here, an impression of Ulzii wanting to seek modernization from his rural surroundings is understood from the choice of background score.

Speaking of responsibilities and life balance, Ulzii becomes the head of the family after a sudden change in his life. Two out of his three siblings are left under his care as his mother leaves them for a job. Keeping that in mind, he also needs to keep sustaining his bigger ambition of winning a physics competition. By being placed on a crucible to find a proper middle ground, all of the unforeseen circumstances start to go against Ulzii. Problems arise, which lead to emotional breakdowns, and every decision taken at times of trouble never puts Ulzii on the right path. This leads him to lose his academic objectives. Although Ulzii has little understanding of the coping mechanism of balancing life and study, he quickly conceals it in order to maintain his arrogance.

Cheers to the cinematographer (Davaanyam Delgerjargal) for his astounding compositions of Ulaanbaatar, the capital of Mongolia, which perfectly capture the wintry conditions.  The cozy yet frigid atmosphere permeates a sense of coldness among the viewers, ensuring the need for warmth is felt virtually throughout the narrative events.

“If Only I Could Hibernate” also covers the socio-political issues in the contemporary Mongolian community. The struggle to earn a decent job seems to be a significant problem in the community. A scene where Ulzii faces his disappointed teacher in the icy forest of Mongolia is clear evidence. Here, we witness Ulzii’s desperation to cope with financial difficulties through illegal work. Alongside unemployment issues, director Purevdash wants to highlight the child labor issues as another persisting problem among Mongolians.

The inclusion of Ulzii’s teacher plays a pivotal role in Ulzii’s perception of career and morality. He acts as Ulzii’s guiding light, pointing the way toward realizing Ulzii’s goals and aspirations. It’s his teacher who suggests Ulzii to take part in the physics competition in the first place. The teacher believes in the distinct and outstanding talent of Ulzii.  A scene in which the teacher asks Ulzii to continue using ninth-grade math to solve a calculus problem demonstrates the teacher’s confidence in Ulzii’s abilities. What makes the role of the teacher even more appraisable is that he becomes a noble fatherly figure for Ulzii at times of need. We witness the teacher advising Ulzii to concentrate on his education upon finding him engaged in illegal work. The sense of urgency and concern in the teacher’s voice is a reflection of his relationship with Ulzii.

Another robust element of “If Only I Could Hibernate” is Ulzii’s mother character (played by Ganchimeg Sandagdorj). She uplifts the film, particularly when she sings with all her heart and soul with a group of her co-workers, portraying the missing puzzle that Ulzii could never find. Thumbs up to Battsooj Uurtsaikh as well, who brilliantly plays Ulzii in this film. His performance as a young man with a complex inner life is truly realistic, and it helps to elevate Ulzii’s characterization overall.

Purevdash demands the viewers to look at the field from both sides and doesn’t want us to choose the greener one. There isn’t a rigid and sole perception that can be considered when an abrupt change occurs in a person’s life.  Moreover, a rationalization can always be provided for a person’s choice.  It can be a student seeking answers, a mother trying to balance her priorities or a set of blissfully unaware young adolescents.

We all need a break from the constant pressure of our daily lives. This may allow us to see beyond our current difficulties and find the inner motivation to push forward. For that, hibernation could be a perfect resolution. 

★★★

Read More: Cannes Film Festival 2023 Winners

If Only I Could Hibernate (2023) Movie Links: IMDb, Rotten Tomatoes
If Only I Could Hibernate (2023) Movie Cast: Batmandakh Batchuluun, Tuguldur Batsaikhan, Sukhee Lodonchuluun

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