Mongolia (2016) Dir. Chinguun Balkhjav

Hopefully the country of origin of this 2016 release will deter you from thinking I have broken my boycott of J*nn*f*r L*wr*nc* films, so save the accusations of hypocrisy for another day – if indeed hell does freeze over. Instead, we’ll bask in the knowledge that this Joy marks the first Mongolian film to feature on this site, courtesy of Amazon Prime.

In 2016, Az (Gereltsetseg Altangerel), her husband (Barkhuu Turbat) and young son are moving home but during the hand over to the new tenants, the pregnant wife (Selenge Chadraabal) goes into labour and they rush her to hospital. Being present for this birth brings back painful memories for Az, so to lay them to rest, she persuades her husband to take her back to her childhood village, where she is reunited with her old neighbour Tuya (Sarantsetseg Myagmar).   

Told through flashback, the story of Az’s upbringing is revealed, beginning with her as an eight year-old (Michidmaa Tsatsralt) awaiting the birth of a little sister. Sadly, her mother dies during the birth leaving her husband Tseden (Munguntulga Ulziibayar) to raise Az and baby Jargal alone. Believing her mother’s death was her fault for wanting a sister, Az decides to help her father out with raising Jargal but tragedy is never far away.

Forget that this a low-budget film from a country not noted for its movie industry with CGI courtesy of Adobe After Effects, Joy is a bona fide weepy to make the hardest of hearts quiver in sympathy for the junior protagonist in this often bleak tale. The title refers to those moments in life where everything comes together and we are at our happiest, to provide the longest lasting and fondest memories.

It might therefore seem an ironic title for a film that dwells on the vicissitudes endured by one family and the poor choices made as a result, but it also celebrates momentary happiness as a wonderful thing to be cherished. Not wishing to give anything away, after a catalogue of misery and heartbreak it does end on a happy note, making the journey worth it, working best if your cynicism for contrivance is left at the door to avoid souring the moment.  

Hopefully the convincing performances from the largely inexperienced cast and the purity of the storytelling will suffice in engaging you to forego any critical thoughts and allow yourself to be sucked into this charming world created by writer-director Chinguun Balkhjav. The first thing we notice is that Mongolia is not a bucolic country of stick huts and animal pelt attire and have embraced modernity like the rest of the world in their cities.

Because the film is set in Az’s home village, which conjured up the above imagery, this is more rural than feral – they may live in humble dwellings but TV, telephones and motor cars do exist. It even snows in Mongolia, which was the cause of Az’s mother fateful accident that exacerbated her giving birth. Prior to this, the family were happy as lambs, dancing about under a summer sky when the news first broke of the pregnancy.

Even with the help of Tuya, her begrudging husband Sambon (Zolboot Gombo) and stuttering milkman Bilgee (Batzorig Sukbaatar), Tseden finds it hard to cope, losing his job and almost running away from the pressure. When Bilgee’s farm catches fire, his solution to resume work and recoup his losses is to form a partnership with Tseden to sell dairy products in the city which means days away from his daughters.

Fate is ready to strike again when Tseden is killed in a car accident during a return trip from the city, but Tuya and Sambon don’t feel comfortable telling Az, now ten year old, feeling she’s too young to understand. Whilst Az accepts her father is “away” somewhere, she is not so naïve to realise she isn’t being told the whole truth, and takes toddler Jargal (Chinkuuslen Oyambasuren) with her to the city to reunite with Tseden.

I mentioned earlier about leaving our cynical hats off when watching this film, but there are times when certain parts of the story do cause eyebrows to be raised at the lack of credibility. This is one of the worst offenders as no-one in the city seems even the slightest bit concerned a ten year-old child and two year-old sister in tow is cause for concern.

Regardless of the many people they show Tseden’s photo to, the number of cafes they eat in or the nights they spend sleeping on the streets, absolutely nobody bothers to take them aside and call social services or the police or get a number for their home village. Well, almost no-one – one man Enderel (Ganzorig Tsetsgee) spots them on the street and takes them, but Az makes one more error of judgement with long lasting consequences for both her and Jargal.

Amazingly Chinguun Balkhjav manages to bring the entire complex story full circle, compete with significant character development and enough personal tragedies to keep a weekly soap opera running for years, all inside 82-minutes. The production values are modest, apparent from the shot-on-video veneer and the aforementioned effects of the snow and the fire at Bilgee’s farm, but the story is built on emotion so these are easily forgiven.  

But it is the performances, especially from Michidmaa Tsatsralt as young Az, that make this film. A powerhouse actress in the making Tsatsralt carries herself with maturity and poise yet is still a child. She creates some magical moments with her on-screen toddler sibling that are so natural you’d believe they were actually related. The older actors never overshadow them yet remain a powerful presence while the adult Az and Jargal do a lot of crying.

Which I suspect many of you will too if you give Joy a chance. A tale of love, sacrifice, fate and not giving up, this is soppy little gem favours heart over forced sentimentality. Awwwwww.