Disclaimer: I know the cinematographer of this movie, (shit, Mongolia’s really small) but I wasn’t paid to promote it and I didn’t watch it for free. I didn’t even plan on reviewing this film until it happened to be the only film available for my time.
Mash Nuuts (Top Secret), 2015
Thriller / Action
Directed by: O.Bat-Ulzii
Screenplay by: T.Tumur-Ochir
Starring: O.Dulguun, E.Odbayar, E.Aldar, G.Lkhagvatseren, J.Altanshagai
What’s it about?
Set in the 1970s of Mongolia, this film is based on the real event of the mutiny in the Army’s Construction Support Unit, which was crushed by an iron fist and silenced to protect the military’s reputation.
Before seeing the movie
I knew I was supposed to be intrigued, because the title said “Top Secret,” but I didn’t expect anything. Also, this movie ended up being our last choice, so we were a few minutes late.
After seeing the movie
Holy freaking shit! This was awesome! Alternating story lines, gray morality, and unorthodox story structure? This was one of the best movies I’ve watched this year, including Mad Max: Fury Road and It Follows. The script is superbly done, both from the dialogue and the sophisticated perspective. Unlike all the other Mongolian films you see, nothing feels phony. Presented with a cocktail of army jargon and Soviet-era items, you immediately find yourself in the seventies, in the army. The casting was also wisely done, and one could see that inter-generational collaboration was one of the trump cards of this film.
Sambuu – An overweight, illiterate cadet who’s several years older than the others. Sambuu, played by Aldar, is just the right amount of comic relief, giving up to his hunger and causing embarrassing situations. But he’s a surprisingly well-developed character.
Tuvden – The main protagonist, who is patient but assertive, who neither fears nor hates authority, who holds great morals close to his chest. In the time of a cold, capitalist Mongolian society, we need characters like Sambuu to remind of us of the need for standing up for the weak, but also respecting authority and avoiding hysterical chaos. The newcomer E.Odbayar is a welcome addition to our growing pool of local talent.
Yadam – All the supporting characters had a driving force in this movie, but Yadam (played by G.Zolboot) became immediately relatable when he reacted to the gunmen. He was a commander of the unit, but in the scene where the armed soldiers show up, he becomes a civilian. Not only is his character well thought-out (upset about the power transaction, but also empathetic to the lives of the young soldiers who are playing with fire[arms]), his stature as a veteran actor also makes the scenes intense.
The film has a complex mix of messages that some can see as themes and some can see as subtexts. But for me, the first two that popped up are “individual vs. society” and “loss of innocence”.
Unlike the 9th Company and JSA, the theme of the film is not yearning for the coolness of the military — which is basically fascism. It’s about karma – how a young man should navigate himself in the harsh and unfair world and already established hierarchies. Next, it’s about the importance of sticking together and backing each other up. Finally, what the film is trying to say indirectly is that bad things happen because sometimes even well-meaning people have misunderstandings, and if nobody compromises, the situation can gain critical mass and screw up everyone. From the authority that should’ve been quick to crush the revolt, we see pieces of humanity peering through. Maybe this is because Mongols – with centuries of Buddhism marked on our conscience and with the awareness of our small population – don’t want to kill anyone and are, thus, not as murderous and strict as we’re recorded in history to be.
Mash Nuuts is a film of a whole another level. The film’s screenwriting, acting, directing, cinematography, and production design are flawless (at least to my excited mind). For the first time, I actually felt confident that this was a film that we shouldn’t be ashamed of showing internationally, because this film is not only well executed, but carries Mongolia’s original tone.
Natso Baatarkhuu lives in Mongolia and writes in English. His works have appeared in Cracked.com and The UB Post, and he started this website. He dreams of publishing novels and selling screenplays someday.