Family disintegration, rural machismo and the search for Golden Viagra in this charming coming-of-age movie.
What do you do when your parents’ marriage is collapsing before your very eyes and your father’s apparent physical and emotional weakness is causing your deeply ingrained views of manhood to crumble? Well, if you are Jabai and Saniya, a brother and sister living in the Kazakh Steppe, the answer is simple – you need to obtain the magical Golden Viagra in order to revitalise your dad and put everything right.
Kazakhstan has not had the best time of it when it comes to cinematic representation, thanks to Sasha Baron Cohen and the casual racism of his comedy representation in the Borat movies, but Mountain Onion might just be the film to change that. Not that director Eldar Shibanov’s film necessarily portrays the country – or at least its rural lands – as the height of modernity and progression. Here is a world where men have strictly defined roles based on their macho attributes and lack of emotions – ‘men don’t cry’ as various characters tell us throughout the movie. For Saniya, desperate to be accepted by her brother’s friends but doomed never to be considered a ‘bro’, it’s especially frustrating as she is regularly left selling onions by the roadside while her brother sneaks off with his mates to spy on passing truck drivers screwing local women in their cabs. Things are frustrating for her mother Lasta too, who is not exactly the most sympathetic character for much of this film as she continually belittles her husband Aybeck. He’s no role model either – he has moved the family out of the city to build a house in the rural nowhere and now makes a living through recycling garbage. The building project has not gone well, forcing the family to live in makeshift accommodation next to an unfinished (in fact, barely started) house that collapses as quickly as it is built and for their mother – who stands out like a modernist sore thumb in the rural location, with her bright orange PVC jump-suit, shocking pink balaclava, dark glasses and blonde hair making her look like an alien in all meanings of the word – it is a sign of her husband’s failure as a man, his bad back and inability to assert himself amongst the locals not exactly helping the situation. The situation is made worse when he is compared to the self-confident charms of truck-driving ‘Uncle’ Vitya, who has all the swagger that Aybeck lacks and is full of tales of how you can buy everything in the sophisticated land of China – with his knock-off ‘Abibas’ T-shirt and Golden Viagra to prove it to the easily impressed locals. When the kids discover that their mother is screwing Vitya while continually demanding a divorce from her husband, the kids do the only thing possible – hiding themselves in Vitya’s truck, they travel to China in search of the magical Viagra that will revitalise their father and save the family.
So, just your everyday tale of family break-up and reunion, with a bit of a road movie thrown in, where the kids have oddball adventures in China, including meeting up with a teenage girl who is a kick-ass thief and so challenges their ingrained ideas of gender (and immediately becomes an object of desire for the adolescent Jabai, who – like his father, perhaps – clearly likes a strong and dominant woman). Lest you think that this suggests a film that hammers home a socio-political message about gender roles and conformity, be reassured – it does, but in a subtle and entertaining way that never labours the point. The emphasis here is on fun, with the two children setting out on a misguided mission to keep their family together that – not exactly a spoiler, this – works, just not in the way they plan. Rather, the kids going missing is enough to bring the estranged couple closer and allow them breathing space to reassess their relationship.
This is a good-natured affair that works through some potentially heavy and occasionally problematic issues in a light and inoffensive way. The two children are genuinely charming and effortlessly authentic – kids in movies are often pretty hard to swallow as real characters but everything here is very naturalistic and believable, even the bizarre slapping game – where boys take turns hitting each other in the face – that the film opens with. Lasta, who feels like hard work and difficult to sympathise with for a lot of the film, is increasingly humanised as things go on, with her objections to being uprooted from the city and transplanted into a spartan rural life in a home that will clearly never be finished seeming entirely reasonable. Even Vitya, the ultimate bullshitter who is happy to help tear the family apart for his own (presumably passing) lust doesn’t seem that bad in the end. The marital issues are not his fault, after all.
The film has an interesting visual style, awash with vivid colour throughout the time in Kazakhstan and then muted and murky in China – the toxic pollution of the big city pointedly suggesting that maybe the countryside ideal that Aybeck is looking for is not entirely stupid, even if his way of getting there is a bit misguided.
In many ways, this is a slight film – for all the potentially cumbersome messages about gender roles, pollution and environmentalism, idealism vs reality and the loss of childhood innocence, it’s mostly a gentle, rambling affair in which little actually happens – like the lives of the people it follows, the film is content to amble along and the audience is left in little doubt that everything will work out in the end – at least for now. The happy ending is not a surprise, though how we get there is interesting, muddled and oddly authentic – sometimes, things just happen and we make the best of what we have for the greater good. The film ends with a whimper rather than a bang, but that’s often how things really occur and the film is oddly all the better for not having some grand, sweeping moment of reconciliation.
In the end, Mountain Onion is a great example of feel-good cinema, perhaps too slight to ever be really memorable – but not everything needs to be a great work of substance to have value. Sometimes, all you want is to be entertained – and this film more than delivers on that front.
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