What is it like to live in Mongolia? What is Mongolian culture?
Unlike its more famous northern and southern neighbors (Russia & China), Mongolia doesn’t seem to draw a lot of attention to itself. If you’re anything like me, your idea of Mongolia is strictly confined to the images of barren plains, nomadic people, and Genghis Khan. My general idea of Mongolian music is even more limited–Tuvan throat singing is perhaps most people’s only exposure to the country’s music scene. Never mind the fact that Mongolia’s largest city, Ulaanbaatar, is undergoing rapid urbanization (so quickly that it became unofficially categorized as an “Asian Wolf Economy”), and is a modern city by all accounts. Developing even more rapidly is Mongolia’s indie music scene, which is much more expansive than what you might expect.
It’s the convergence of these two things–Ulaanbaatar’s new status as a major world capital and its burgeoning music scene–that co-directors Ian Allardyce and Bat-Amgalan Lkhagvajav based They Sing Up On the Hill (2019) on. With the goal to “move on from lazy depictions of Mongolian life into something truer to reality in Ulaanbaatar,” Allardyce and Lkhagvajav’s debut feature film succeeds in doing exactly that. They Sing… shatters all of your previous expectations of what Ulaanbaatar is, rebranding it as a city with culture, music, and most importantly, heart. If Irish musical Once (2007) was set in Mongolia rather than Dublin, They Sing… would be the result.
Throughout the span of its 86 minutes, They Sing… showcases local pop, folk, punk, rock, and even traditional Mongolian music through the eyes of its characters as they experience them throughout their daily lives. It’s only fitting that the two lead actors, Dulguun Bayasgalan (Magnolian) and Nomin-Erdene Munkhbat (NMN), are two of Mongolia’s most up-and-coming artists in reality as well. As Od (Dulguun Bayasgalan) and Gegee (Nomin-Erdene Munkhbat) navigate their lives as musicians in their rapidly changing city, they too have to come to terms with where their place is in this new world.
We talked to one of the co-directors, UK director Ian Allardyce, about his experience making the film–and what the state of independent film and music is like in Ulaanbaatar.
One of the main goals of the film was to depict to the world what a modern-day Ulaanbaatar is like, and I think that you and your co-director achieved that. A lot of the Western world doesn’t know about Ulaanbaatar and its prominence as a major city. In the film, Gegee even comments on the rapidly growing metropolis, saying that it seems like every day a new building goes up.
What do you think the world should know about modern-day Ulaanbaatar? What is it like working there as a filmmaker?
We always wanted our film to have three stars; our amazing artists, the music and Ulaanbaatar city itself! It is a very interesting city. I almost think of it as an island state, because it so far away from the nearest other population centres. And that distance means the city writes its own story and creates a very specific energy. Something fun always seems to be happening! It is true it can be a tough place; with long winters, fast economic growth, lots of construction, traffic and competition in everyday life. BUT we believe that makes the ‘UB’ residents very resilient and adaptive people. Those same challenges also make the young generation very creative. They have to be to move forwards. So for filmmakers it is place with, (I already used the word) an ‘energy’ that you can harness for your film.
How did the creation of the film come about? From what I can find online, this is the first feature length film that the co-directors and lead actor/actress have done. Was it difficult to create the film as first-timers?
Amga (Co-Director) and myself have made one ultra-low budget feature (which is why we don’t mention it!) and two short films together. The last short “The Wonderful Flight” won Best Drama at The Smalls Film Festival in the UK. That award came with a camera package from Panavision UK, to be used for a feature film! We had been involved in the indie-music scene in UB for many years, having made music videos for several cult bands. And so the idea of featuring Mongolian indie music in a feature film was born! And the award was great because it gave us a kick up the ass to make a movie!
Dulguun Bayasgalan, who plays Od in the film, is already relatively well known as one of Mongolia’s rising indie musicians. The same goes for Nomin-Erdene Munkhbat, who plays Gegee. How did the two of them get involved in the making of the film?
Amga had already worked with Dulguun on music videos. One of the themes of the film is that the protagonist, Od, is struggling with his identity. And we wanted to show that the cure for that could be through music, specifically connecting with his Mongolian heritage through traditional music. And so the music that Dulguun (as Magnolian) had already been making fit so well with the concept for the film, he was already creating tracks that combined contemporary indie with traditional elements. So it was perfect to work together. And it was actually Dulguun who suggested we work with Nomin. As ’NMN’, Nomin writes really great lyrics about everyday life in Mongolia, but with deep meaning. And so by combining them together we made magic!
In the film, there’s a cafe scene where Od talks about his experience as a musician in Mongolia. He laments the state of the music industry in Mongolia, saying artists in the US or Europe have better prospects in the arts. Is this statement based on Bayasgalan’s and Munkhbat’s own career trajectories, or is it inspired by something else?
It is true that it is hard for musicians in Mongolia, mostly just because the market is small, so the earning potential is less. Some pop acts make a good living, but indie acts don’t make much. And so many make the decision between solely making music or taking another job. Od’s lament “what is art for?” is actually a real question when there is little reward.
Even as filmmakers we ask ourselves why do we do it? The answer is obviously for the passion!
What are some of your inspirations for the film? We’ve noticed that the film itself is very similar to popular Irish film, Once–did that film influence the creation of They Sing… at all?
Funnily enough we only realised we had similarities to ‘Once’ quite far into the production process. We had the concept of making a film about young musicians in Ulaanbaatar maybe 10 years ago! But we do hope what we’ve done for Ulaanbaatar is similar to what Once did for Dublin. I personally am inspired by British Social Realism film by directors like Shane Meadows and Lyn Ramsey. For these we take the desire to show real people going about their real lives. We also wanted the tone of the film to be like Dazed and Confused (1993), Boogie Nights (1997), Lady Bird (2017) or Rushmore (1998). The feel and tone is quite important to us.
In a very memorable scene from the film, Od goes out into the Mongolian countryside and lies down, feeling lost. What does the countryside mean to you as directors, and why does he decide to return there to find himself?
Mongolia is obviously famous for its huge, open spaces. And there are many films set solely out there. But as I’ve described Ulaanbaatar city is a very dynamic place. And so in our film the countryside is a contrast to the city. In that way it also describes Od’s state of mind; he is lost in the busy city and looks for a clear path in the peaceful countryside.
They Sing… features a huge range of music from Mongolia in passing–from indie folk, rock, punk, traditional folk singing, Mongolian long songs etc. What songs are used in the making of the film, and who are some local artists that the world should know about?
Thanks, we wanted the film to be full of music from start to end! There are actually 6 tracks written specifically for the film and several others. And we hope people love the traditional instruments. As for other bands? I would recommend listening to The Colors, Mohanik, The Lemons, Night Train and Nisvanis (they are the legendary 90s grunge band you see on a TV in one scene).
What is the state of the Mongolian film industry? Unlike other Asian countries, we rarely get to hear about what it’s like!
The Mongolian film industry is quite segmented. Local market focused filmmakers make commercial films either as historical action-dramas, rom-coms or comedies. But they are very specific to local audiences and don’t cross-over. The other ‘indie’ or ‘art’ filmmakers make films specifically for the international festival market, and those films often aren’t seen by local audiences either! And so we maybe have been the first people to make a film that is popular to both audiences! That was actually a big hope of ours, if a young adult in Ulaanbaatar is inspired by our film but also someone in London or Seoul, we have done our job!
What do you hope to achieve with They Sing… as a film, and what do you hope viewers all around the world can take away from it?
We wanted our film to address really contemporary issues about life for young Mongolian’s in this crazy, connected modern world. But also we wanted the film to be a positive vision of life in Mongolia. In a some ways, it would have actually been easier to make a film about rural life or the struggle with poverty (which does still exist in Mongolia and may filmmakers continue to feature it!) But stories set in the countryside or showing ‘developing nations’ in Asia seem to be very successful at international film festivals, and sometimes I wonder that, even if the festival juries have good intentions, they actually perpetuate stereotypes about life in parts of Asia? So just one time, we hope we’ve made a simple film, which might not be perfect, but the heart of it will put a smile on your face and help you see Mongolia in a completely new way. Listen with your heart!
You can catch They Sing Up On the Hill at an International Film Festival near you.
This interview was conducted by Li-Wei Chu via email in April 2019.
Li-Wei Chu is a recent graduate from UC Davis who majored in Cinema and Digital Media who also briefly studied film at Queen Mary, University of London. Li-Wei is obsessed with horror films (especially the ones that give him nightmares), films from East Asia, and really, any film that makes you stop and think.
He loves talking about film and indie music with others. He’s also a record collector and cross-stitches when he has free time. In the future, he hopes to be able to write about film and wants to find a job in the film industry that can support his record buying habits. Maybe one day he’ll also be able to play the guitar.