How many times as a child were you told not to wish your life away when expressing impatience? But when the little brother of Ulzii (Battsooj Uurtsaikh) speaks the title of Zoljargal Purevdash‘s social realist drama, you can understand the desire to fast forward. They are after all stuck in a yurt on the outskirts of Ulaanbaatar in the frigid Mongolian winter with no heating and precious little food. There are few moments where you would wish to apply the same method to If Only I Could Hibernate, a handsome and sincere study of a burdened young man, although its protagonist can be unnecessarily infuriating.

Ulzii is torn between the immediate need to provide for his family and the possibility of a brighter future. He excels in science at school and his physics teacher encourages him to take extra classes so he may be competitive in local competitions. If he does well well enough a full scholarship to an elite school could be his. However, his family life is precarious. His mother is an alcoholic and struggles to hold down a job in the city. She moves back to their original home in the countryside alone to take up an offer of work, persuaded by Ulzii that it’s important his little siblings carry on their schooling and that he can take care of them. But hardship bites hard and Ulzii has to decide whether to sacrifice long-term gain for immediate survival by skipping classes and picking up work in the illegal logging trade.

Zoljargal Purevdash’s quietly emotive debut teases the possibility of a standard wish-fulfillment story told in an unfamiliar setting, but that would have been a disservice to the tough and grounded environment she presents. If Only I Could Hibernate is often a beautiful film to look at but offers no illusion of comfort. The colour palette accentuates the cold to the extent you can almost feel the wind chill through the screen, and even the brighter environs of the school have a stentorian utility and rigidity. Ulzii is offered hope but this is not a film filled with misplaced optimism.

If Only I Could Hibernate does occasionally slip beyond its commitment to authenticity through its often frustrating hero. Of course, teenagers are difficult and mercurial, and Ulzii is having to cope with an unusual amount of responsibility, but this makes his stubbornness and resistance to help feel like a dramatic contrivance. The mix of pride and shame he feels is a potent one, but he has an attentive teacher and a kindly neighbour more than willing to provide some food and fuel. There’s no reason he should risk not just his health unnecessarily,but that of his brother and sister.

If Only I Could Hibernate is otherwise a strong debut that convinces in its depiction of a Mongolian bildungsroman.. Perhaps the hint of autobiography helps given Zoljargal Purevdash herself was something of a science scholar but it’s a film that feels lived-in and deeply personal. It’s also beautifully filmed, with a series of quietly impressive, artfully-staged shots that add some subtle flair. Falling somewhere between Ken Loach and Vittorio De Sica, its cinematic heritage is clear, but brings its own distinct flavour. It’s a universal story given made fresh through its cultural specificity.

In selected cinemas from Fri 19 Apr 2024