Movie Review: If Only I Could Hibernate

Screened at El Gouna Film Festival 2023

One-liner: An authentic, vivid, heartfelt, inspirational, spirited and well-acted dramedy about the perseverance of taking responsibility.

If Only I Could Hibernate (original title: Baavgai Bolohson) is a coming-of-age Mongolian family dramedy that traces the growing pains of a teenager forced to take care of his brother and sister in the Ulaanbaatar district. Having established himself as a top Physics student, under the focused supervision of his teacher, Ulzii’s future looks bright with the promise of a full scholarship. Yet, after his father’s passing, his mother’s alcoholism and inability to land a decent paying job finds them living on the bread line. Held back by his seemingly relentless family responsibilities, Ulzii attempts to be a parent figure, breadwinner and prize-winning student.

This is a stunning feature film debut from writer-director Zoljargal Purevdash, who tells the story of a young man trying to find his place in the world. Grappling with social issues around impoverishment, unemployment, harsh winters and social strata, If Only I Could Hibernate paints a vivid picture of Ulzii’s world of close quarter living and expansive opportunism. Moving from a claustrophobic dwelling to the streets and great outdoors, these high contrast settings show a person breaking free from the trappings of circumstance.

Trying to forge ahead in the face of a defeated and illiterate mother with a drinking problem, Ulzii’s anger is channeled into can-do spirit. It’s in this space that the kitchen sink realism of the film plays out with a healthy dose of underdog determination. Shedding his teenage spirit to take his place as the self-appointed head of the home, this impacts every aspect of Ulzii’s life as premature adulthood sets in. From scrounging for scrap material to literally keep the home fires burning to resource management and relentless job-seeking, the young man does everything in his power to scrape by. Collecting child welfare and minding his brother and sister, If Only I Could Hibernate speaks to the man’s desperate attempts to avoid following in his parent’s footsteps.

This coming-of-age drama could have been a depressing examination of persistent social conditions in Mongolia with a view to reform. Yet, what makes it truly special is just how much heart and spirit is invested in the protagonist’s plight. Battsooj Uurtsaikh is a real find, slipping into the role so seamlessly that it’s easy to forget this is a performance. Living with purpose, every action is performed in an attempt to seize opportunities, even bending the law to ensure food security and welfare. A proud young man, he resists hand outs… trying to do it without becoming as burdensome as his mother. Ganchimeg Sandagdorj is a convincing and strong counterpoint to Uurtsaikh, whose weak-willed efforts serve as a cautionary tale and ultimately a springboard.

if only i could hibernate film

“Want to go fast, go alone. Want to go far, go together.”

Through home, school and ordinary life moments we discover the mettle of his character, pushed to the limit yet full of pluck. Instead of becoming a victim, he takes full responsibility and this is what makes If Only I Could Hibernate so inspirational. Watching Ulzii strive, provide and sacrifice his own teenage whims for the betterment of his family makes this film noble and winsome even. Spurred by spirited performances and grounded by authentic mis-en-scene, the film’s compelled by good pacing and heartfelt drama, tapping into universal themes around dignity, self-determination and family values.

Purevdash’s film has just as much joy as sorrow, allowing its sense of humour to add a realistic verve to its humbling happenings. In spite of their poor conditions, the family are still able to find light in the darkness. It’s this mental resilience and hopeful attitude that drives the narrative as Ulzii summits this mountain. There to witness the good times and the bad, If Only I Could Hibernate is an unassuming yet soulful journey that is warm, endearing and deeply human in its mutual suffering and kindness. From a mother’s heart song to a young boy’s efforts to fill in for his father in the city that killed him, If Only I Could Hibernate makes for an intimate, honest and touching portrait about reversing generational trauma.

If Only I Could Hibernate establishes a seamless flow by way of near-invisible cinematography, offering a docudrama lens to elevate the sense of life-like spontaneity. The edit keeps the story from stagnating, spending just enough time to soak up dramatic tension before moving along, rarely overstaying its welcome. Then, when it comes to the soundtrack, vocal music and a combination of beatboxing creates an original, quirky and lively human undertone to the sound. Steady direction and a clear-cut vision enhance earnest performances that ring true across the board. Dealing with the mundane aspects of surviving the daily grind, there’s a crowd-pleasing undercurrent to this layered drama, which equally doesn’t shy away from social issues.

The bottom line: Spirited