A “khadak” is a ceremonial scarf, and in Khadak, a magic-realist film set in Mongolia, scarves appear at moments of completion or renewal. They’re wrapped around animals and trees, and they fall from the heavens when Bagi, the movie’s protagonist, finally understands the message of his dreams. The khadaks, the color of a cerulean sky, suggest the numinous forces at work in Bagi’s life, and in the lives of all who feel the tug of destiny.
Bagi and his family live a traditional lifestyle, so when the young man has a vision and then an epileptic fit, the local shaman is called in to heal him. She tells Bagi’s grandfather that the boy has received a calling, but Bagi rejects this fate for the uncomplicated pleasures of shepherding his family’s livestock. One day, soldiers arrive to drive the small settlement of nomads from the steppes. The masked men claim that a plague is spreading across the land, and that it will kill the families and their animals. Everyone is relocated to a housing complex, and some, like Bagi’s mother, are given jobs at a mining company. For others, including Bagi’s grandfather, dislocation leads to despair. Bagi is compelled to act, and with the help of the female shaman, harnesses all his powers to restore things to their natural order.
At first, Khadak is reminiscent of the films of Byambasuren Davaa (The Story of the Weeping Camel, Cave of the Yellow Dog) and those of Zacharias Kunuk and Norman Cohn (Atanarjuat, The Journals of Knud Rasmussen): It is inspired by the spiritual beliefs of indigenous people who live in harmony with their surroundings. Co-directors Peter Brosens and Jessica Woodworth, both Westerners, take great care in accurately representing Bagi’s shamanistic journey, and in making it accessible. Audiences will recognize Khadak as an archetypal story about the claiming of one’s true identity, despite the distraction of a stagnant subplot and the filmmakers’ references to contemporary political issues. At times, the shamanistic journey is unnecessarily oblique, and feels like the work of wide-eyed outsiders to the culture. In the end, Khadak lacks the graceful simplicity of Cave of the Yellow Dog, for instance, but it is nevertheless a highly imaginative film, beautifully scored and well-acted.