An interview with director Bat-Amgalan Lkhagvajav


Bat-Amgalan Lkhagvajav and Ian Allardyce‘s charmingly sincere film They Sing Up On The Hill is included in the official programme of Helsinki Cine Aasia 2019. We spoke to Lkhagvajav about his sources of inspiration, his influences, and asked him for recommendations from the Helsinki Cine Aasia programme.

What inspired you to make the film They Sing Up On The Hill?

I have to mention first my friend, an English guy Ian Allardyce who is now based in the UK. Me and him, we have been friends for a long time and since 2003, and we have been making films together. Already then, we had the idea for this film but we did not know, how exactly we would make it so it got put on the shelf for all these years.

Then luckily in 2016, we won an award with our short film and got a camera equipment grant from Panavision in the UK. We decided that now was the time to make that music film we had been talking about for so many years.

Also, three years ago I met Dulguun Bayasgalan, they guy who plays the lead character in the film. He is a great Mongolian musician who sings in English which is still new in Mongolia. I wrote the script specifically for him and then persuaded him to take the part in this film. Both lead actors in the film are real-life musicians in Mongolia. Dulguun is known as Magnolian (which sounds like Mongolian, right) and the female lead Nomin-Erdene Munkhbat or NMN, she started her career as a rapper although now she is more into singing.

What story did you want to tell with the film?

We wanted to make a contemporary Mongolian film, show a different perspective to Mongolia and break the stereotypical image of Mongolia and make this film specifically for international audience.

Mongolia is a developing country. People are basically trying to survive. Some people get lost in transition and others, they get inspired by Mongolian culture but also by influences from the West. Similarly, Mongolian music is also changing. Mongolia has a strong musical tradition and the modern Mongolian music has traditional Mongolian elements combined with modern, Western influences.

What has influenced you as a filmmaker?

I love to watch old Mongolian films, made in the 1950s, 60s, 70s and 80s. During that time, film directors had the pressure to make propaganda films. But they still were able to put their own ideas in their films in a hidden language. And you can notice these hidden messages nowadays when you watch old Mongolian films. Sometimes when I watch those films I think “oh, this element is so cool and clever” and “wow, he approach the idea this way to tell the story” – so that the officials at the time did not get it.

Internationally, I love to watch Kim Ki-Duk’s films and also I love to watch films by the 5th generation of Chinese filmmakers, so Zhang Yimou etc. I also love to watch Iranian films. I think both Chinese films and Iranian films both have very distinguished style and identity. My dream is to great films that have Mongolian style and identity in the film!

Which film did you see last?

Before coming to Helsinki Cine Aasia, the last film I saw was Wang Quan’s film Öndög which was also shown at the Berlinale and was quite successful there. Although the director is Chinese, the film was shot in Mongolia and also the story of the film is Mongolian. It was a really, really good film. Both the story and his approach to it are so cool. I loved the way he told the story in a very simple, clever and sometimes even silent manner.

The executive producer of that film, he used to be an actor and actually he appears in one of my short films. Recently, he brought Wang Quan to Mongolia and during their visit, they wanted to show Öndög on a big screen in Mongolia. As it happens, our office has a big screen so they showed the film there. It was quite funny, watching that film right after it had been screened at Berlinale in our own office.

What does the future hold for you?

Of course to make more films! Currently I have two ideas but they are very much work-in-progress still so I cannot say much more at this stage. I think it will take 3 to 4 years to complete those two films. Those too will explore Mongolia in transition and the changing Mongolian identity.

What films from the Helsinki Cine Aasia programme would you recommend?

I just watched Night Is Short, Walk on Girl, an animation film from Japan which was very good. Next I am going to see An Elephant Sitting Still. That film comes with a sad story… (Hu Bo, its director committed a suicide after the film was completed.) I want to sit in the cinema for the full four hours as a tribute to its director Hu Bo.