Steppe by Steppe

Gombo, the ingenuous hero of Close to Eden, wields a mean urga. The preferred tool of the Mongolian rancher, the gadget resembles a long fishing rod with a noose at the end of it and is one handy piece of equipment for a guy trying to scratch out a living on the vast, rolling steppes of east central Asia. Gombo uses his for a variety of tasks, from lassoing escaping sheep to snaring his feisty spouse, Pagma, when she takes off on horseback to escape his sexual advances. When he finally catches Pagma, he plants the stick upright in the ground, where it serves as a "Do Not Disturb" sign for other range-riding nomads.

The urga is but one example of a world that few Westerners know anything about, and one charming disclosure from a wonderful little movie that is brimming with such discoveries. From the endless expanse of the grassy steppes to the claustrophobic, sweaty interior of a Chinese discotheque, every frame of Close to Eden is a revelation. Like The Gods Must Be Crazy, the film would have been entertaining even in the complete absence of a story, for offering an insider's peek at a colorful and exotic corner of the world. Both pictures pull off the neat trick of lamenting the encroachment of modern civilization into the lives of a benign people existing harmoniously with nature, while at the same time accepting its inevitability. In both cases, the filmmakers rely upon gentle humor and deft characterization to get their points across without ever having to mount the soapbox and lecture.

Gombo is the Mongolian equivalent of a cowboy, a man of few wants and even fewer words, who has little use for modern contrivances such as bicycles and television sets. He can catch a dragonfly with his bare hands and coax it into singing for him (a talent he delights in passing on to his son, Bouin). But Pagma is another story. Sure, she can cook and take care of the kids and even singlehandedly corral a herd of spooked horses should the need arise, and she's almost as good at dodging the urga as Gombo is at deploying it -- almost. But, as Gombo's mother (referred to on-screen and identified in the credits only as "Babushka") is quick to point out in her daughter-in-law's presence, Pagma is still a city girl at heart. She delights in the accordion-playing skills of her daughter, Bourma (she took lessons from Pagma's exalted brother, who wears a tux and tickles the ivories in the piano bar of a fancy hotel in town). When Bouin appears fascinated by the dragonfly his father has so deftly caught for his amusement, Pagma lures the boy away with a rubber squeaky toy.

And so, with a few twists, the premise is established: Gombo is Adam; Pagma is Eve; the steppes are their Eden. There's even a cute, if slightly obvious, bit of symbolism early on, when the couple shares an apple given to them by a Russian interloper, Sergei, who plays a bumbling, unwitting serpent.

Gombo has been doing his best to live a life as simple and pure as that of his ancestors. But there's dissension in the garden: in addition to Bourma and Bouin, Gombo and Pagma have a third offspring, an infant. Gombo wants to go for four A after all, he reasons, Genghis Khan was a fourth child A but Pagma balks. They're already pushing their luck with three, the absolute Mongolian maximum as determined by Chinese law. (And even those three are a privilege reserved only for the Mongol minority; "normal" Chinese couples are permitted only one child.)

But when Sergei, a contract laborer from Irkutsk, nods off at the wheel of his dilapidated truck and runs it into a lake near Gombo's home, the balance of power shifts in Pagma's favor. Despite their myriad cultural differences, Sergei and Gombo's family become quite taken with each other. Vladimir Gostukhin, a Russian actor who has worked with Close to Eden director Nikita Mikhalkov before, but never to greater comic effect, is hysterical as the burly truck driver who does his best to conceal the disgust that convulses him when he tastes Pagma's cooking or shares Gombo's hooch.

When, after extricating his truck with the Mongolian's help, it's time for Sergei to return to the city, a bargain is struck -- he will take his new friend Gombo along on a shopping spree. Pagma has given Gombo a two-item shopping list: a TV set and condoms. Torn between his desire to please his wife and his reluctance to give up the old ways, Gombo eventually brings himself to fill half the order.

Along the way there are many Kodak moments: Sergei trying to get a Chinese dance band to play his favorite song by partially disrobing so they can read the musical notation tattooed on his back; Gombo killing a sheep so expertly and humanely it almost seems as if the animal has accepted its fate. In the past director Mikhalkov -- who, like Gostukhin, is Russian -- has demonstrated a visual flair and a knack for composing the unforgettable shot (the memorable scene from his 1987 feature, Dark Eyes, where a chivalrous Marcello Mastroianni wades fully dressed into a pool of mud to retrieve a hat for a woman is a prime example), but never has he been in better form.

Or as mischievous. Close to Eden takes potshots at everyone -- the Russians, the Chinese, Western civilization in general and Sylvester Stallone in particular. Jests at Sly's expense are actually part of an elaborate inside joke A Mikhalkov's brother, Andrei Konchalovsky, directed Stallone in the dimwitted buddy-cop actioner Tango and Cash, and Mikhalkov refuses to let him live it down.

Unfortunately, the odds are long that more people will have seen Konchalovsky's picture than Mikhalkov's. Close to Eden is not a movie for people whose taste is dictated by the pacing of music videos and Nike ads. Such folk are not likely to appreciate the inventiveness Gombo exhibits when he builds a windmill to generate power for the family's newly acquired TV set, nor are they likely to pick up on the irony of Gombo and Pagma's bored abandonment of the flickering box moments after rigging it up. Nobody gets blown away in this movie, and the closest thing to a car crash comes when Sergei noses his truck halfway into the lake. (There is a chase scene, but it involves a tuxedoed piano player and a silk-robed Mongol on horseback, galloping through the streets of a dark Chinese town to rescue their Russian comrade from the local police.) Close to Eden pays too much attention to the quiet beauty of unsullied terra firma, and the soundtrack is heavier on crickets and dragonflies than it is on Whitney Houston or Eric Clapton (although little Bourma does get a chance to cut loose on the accordion in a couple of scenes).

So the film was not made with an assault on box-office records in mind. It still has a lot more to recommend it than the addition of the urga to the roll call of cinematic phallic symbols.


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