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If Only I Could Hibernate Film Review

If Only I Could Hibernate, Zoljargal Purevdash’s potent first feature, reveals how those in poverty are forced into adulthood.

Director: Zoljargal Purevdash
Genre: Drama
Run Time: 99′
UK & Irish Release: April 19, 2024
UK Release: TBA
Where to watch: in cinemas

The coming-of-age trope serves as a vessel for so many people to see their stories on screen. We can sympathize with the awkwardness and anxiety connected with growing up and the arrogance in truly believing you should be treated like an adult. We look at these films as adults and see ourselves in the main characters, wanting to be able to tell them to hold onto their youth because there is still so much life to live and lessons to learn ahead of them.

Zoljargal Purevdash’s hypnotizing debut feature film takes an unexpected yet deeply nuanced take on the coming-of-age trope with a character that is not slowly assimilating adulthood but rather harshly thrown into it

At the center of If Only I Could Hibernate, an Un Certain Regard selection at the 2023 Cannes Film Festival, is a young boy named Ulzii (Battsooj Uurtsaikh). Ulzii is no different from any boy his age. He laughs at his three little siblings when they have tantrums, he teases his crush and he worked all summer to save up for a new pair of Nike sneakers he had been dying to get. While Ulzii seems like a normal kid, the audience quickly learns that these moments of generic adolescence are becoming few and far between for him.

His family moved to a city in the Ulaanbaatar district from the countryside two years earlier for the opportunity to get a better education for Ulzii and his siblings. His father, who was the primary breadwinner of the family, has recently passed away and Ulzii’s mother cannot handle the pressure of being the sole provider for the family. While she has turned to alcohol to cope, Ulzii, being the eldest of the four siblings, steps up to the plate to take care of his family

While dealing with this enormous stress at home, we learn that Ulzii is at the top of his class. He is so advanced that his teacher suggests that he go out for a physics competition where the top prize is a full scholarship to one of the most prestigious schools in the country. An opportunity that could change the trajectory of his life. As he begins to prepare for the competition, however, his mother decides to go back to the countryside as she is unable to find work in the city and leave Ulzii in charge of himself and two of his siblings. Ulzii must now balance studying for this opportunity of a lifetime with providing food and care for his younger siblings, all while being a child himself.

If Only I Could Hibernate’s potency comes from the parallel lives we see in Ulzii and how they intersect with one another. On the one hand, he’s a normal schoolboy with an exceptional gift that holds endless potential for him. On the other, he’s a caretaker and the only person able to provide for his mother and young siblings. Ulzii says at the beginning of the film that he refuses to be seen as a beggar, which often results in situations like him being unable to buy coal to light the family’s heater or falling asleep in class because he’s working all hours of the night after school to afford food for his siblings. 

If Only I Could Hibernate (Conic)

Ulzii is brilliant but he is proud. During the first level of the physics competition, he receives an award for having the most creative solution to a problem asked on the test. This translates to how he views the problems around him. Instead of asking for help, he takes on the burdens of his family’s survival himself,  which often leads to him sacrificing his happiness and in many ways the things that let him be a child. Through his father’s death and his mother’s addiction, Ulzii is thrust into a situation where his family cannot afford the luxury of him being a child

If Only I Could Hibernate challenges the coming-of-age archetype because Ulzii does not come of age; he is thrown into being an adult. This is what really sets the film apart from others like it. In Purevdash’s first feature, she shows her main character being forced into adulthood, then over time slowly let go of the things that made him a child. Most coming-of-age stories start off with a child slowly letting go of aspects of their childhood in order to come into themselves as full-blown adults. Purevdash’s approach is not just more impactful – the audience feels each tinge of pain Ulzii does as he sacrifices his childhood carelessness for the great good of his family – but more realistic to the storytelling. 

Purevdash’s film comes from personal experiences living in the Yurt district of Ulaanbaatar. She wanted to create a piece about understanding and having sympathy for the pain the people around her experience. Ulzii feels like he is an adult and therefore cannot reach out and ask the people in his community for the help he desperately needs. For as brilliant as he is, his views on adulthood are extraordinarily one-dimensional. He doesn’t think anyone will understand his situation and would rather freeze and starve than feel like a charity case. Little does he realize, everyone in his life from his teachers to his neighbors and even his younger siblings, whom he works so hard to care for, wants him to be able to be a kid and not have to hold this deeply burdensome world on his shoulders. 

Uurtsaikh, who is really from the Yurt district, handles his first film with a quiet grace. His performance as Ulzii perfectly conveys the experience of a child believing they are an adult long before they are truly able to call themselves one. He plays Ulzii with tenacity and resilience but has no problems depicting the vulnerable moments we see his character face. For it being Purevdash’s first feature, it is clear she has meticulously crafted every moment of this story with the caution and care of a far more seasoned director. 

If Only I Could Hibernate shines a light on a brutal truth that many do not think about when they think about families in poverty. It’s not a coming-of-age story that will be relatable to each viewer, but it will make each viewer more empathetic of the world they live in. There’s a throughline message in the film about trying to understand one another’s pain and how impactful that can be, how much of a difference that can make to someone’s life. Ulzii will feel seen and supported, but only if someone will take the time to understand his pain.

The film feels like a translation of pain and suffering without being overtly heavy and only showing the most depressing aspects of this family’s life. There is also an enormous amount of hope. Hope that Ulzii will be able to get that scholarship, hope that there is more out in the world for him and hope that his family will be able to be pulled out of poverty. Pain and hope aren’t exclusive feelings and this film shows the power of finding hope through the pain.

If Only I Could Hibernate will be released in UK & Irish cinemas from 19 April, 2024.

If Only I Could Hibernate: Trailer (Conic)
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