| ||Awards: Best European Film at the 1993 Golden Globe Festival; Best Film at the 1993 European Film Academy; Academy Award Nominee for Best Foreign Language Film in 1993; Best Director at the 1993 Nika Film Festival; Prize of the President's Council at the 1992 Kinotavr Film Festival; Golden Lion Award at the 1991 Venice International Film Festival; Golden Lion Award at the 1990 Venice International Film Festival. |
Nikita Mikhalkov's Urga is a reflection on the idyllic life style of a Mongolian family living in the steppes of Manchuria. The English release title, Close to Eden, refers explicitly to nostalgic feelings about heaven located far from Western civilization. The family of farmers, Combo and Pagma, live in a iurt (a tent) without any urban conveniences—no telephone, sewing machine, or car. Combo rides his black horse even if he needs to go far away to the city, in order to get condoms—the "signifiers" of civilized culture. According to Chinese laws, the average family is allowed to have only one child; however, since Mongolians are an ethnic minority, they are permitted to have two children. The main characters of Close to Eden already have three children and at the end of the film they decide to have a fourth one in order to continue their Mongolian line.
Mikhalkov shot his film in Inner Mongolia, which now belongs to China, and for the cast he chose native Mongolians. His interest in this part of the world may be read as a flashback into Russian history: long ago Russia was conquered by the Tatar—Mongols and since then these two ethnicities have been perceived by Russian people as cruel, barbarian, and wild. Close to Eden is Mikhalkov's attempt to construct a different Mongolian identity: peaceful, hospitable, and loving. Combo plays with his son Buyin, catches a dragonfly and shows him how it can make music with its wings. Pagma takes care of her family but always finds some time to play with the children. When the Russian truck driver Sergei gets stuck in the steppes, the hospitable Mongols show their cordiality by killing one of their sheep, preparing a nice dinner for their guest and sharing vodka with him. The generosity and sincerity of the Mongols is represented in the scene when Combo bails Sergei out of jail for singing a waltz about Russian soldiers at a Chinese restaurant.
In comparison to the Mongols, Russians are represented in Mikhalkov's film as being less strong and patient: Sergei's wife complains about her life in China; his daughter is upset that there are no Russian children for her to play with; Sergei himself on many occasions has to rely on help and support from his Mongolian friends. Another Russian, whom Sergei meets at the restaurant, is portrayed in the film as dishonest and mercenary, "selling" his tradition and culture for a couple of yen and not respecting the Russian past.
There are numerous references in the film to the past of the Mongols. Combo tries to pass on Mongolian culture to his son by reciting stories and legends about the Mongol tribe. The couple names their fourth son Tamulin in honor of Genghis Khan's birth name. At one point, Genghis Khan and his horde even appear in Combo's dreams to question him about his Mongolian identity. The Mongolian urga—a special pole with a lasso for catching wild horses and runaway livestock—plays an important role in Mikhalkov's film. According to tradition, the urga is placed in a field as a "Do Not Disturb" sign when a Mongolian couple is making love; it functions as a marker for the "territory of love." The urga symbolizes Mongolian culture and ethnicity in general, providing proof that the Mongols still exist as an ethnic group and keep their traditions.
By the end of the film, however, the land where the Mongolian family used to live is disfigured by ugly roads and the urga has been replaced by a chimney. Pagma and Combo's fourth son, Tamulin, narrates his own life story. He tells about his work at a gas station and his travel to Russia. He has been assimilated by other cultures and all that is left of his Mongolian background is his language.
Nikita Mikhalkov is one of the most famous Russian filmmakers and actors. He has won a number of awards at the Cannes and Venice Film Festivals, as well as an Academy Award for his 1994 film Burnt by the Sun. He was born in 1945 into the family of Soviet poet and playwright Sergei Mikhalkov. In 1963 he had began to study acting at the Shchukin School. While still a student, he took part in Georgii Daneliia's film I Walk in Moscow (1964). Mikhalkov graduated from All-Union State Institute for Filmmaking in 1971. In 1993 he was elected president of the Russian Cultural Foundation and since 1997 he has been President the Russian Union of Filmmakers.
1974 At Home among Strangers, a Stranger at Home
1975 Slave of Love
1977 An Unfinished Piece for a Mechanical Piano
1978 Five Evenings
1981 Family Relations
1983 Without Witnesses
1987 Dark Eyes
1991 Close to Eden
1993 Anna from Six to Eighteen
1994 Burnt by the Sun
1998 The Barber of Siberia