BERLIN—A culture-clash movie with an erotic subplot, there’s little doubt that Uisenma Borchu’s Black Milk (which premiered on Friday at the Berlin Film Festival), the Mongolian-German director’s second feature, is an intensely personal project. Borchu emigrated from Mongolia to Germany with her family at the age of 4 and plays the central role of Wessi, a woman who returns as an adult to her homeland to explore her Mongolian identity and reestablish a relationship with her sister Ossi.
Upon her arrival at an austere, but certainly picturesque, home on the steppe, Wessi enjoys a warm reception from her family and neighbors. There’s a genuine conviviality shared by these hard-working nomads. Rather wistfully, Wessi’s father seems confident that her long exile in Germany hasn’t alienated her from her people’s customs.
In some respects, Black Milk, despite some risqué elements meant to appeal to moviegoers who probably couldn’t care less about Mongolia, sometimes resembles an ethnographic film. Great care is taken conveying the meticulous preparation of golden millet and the traditional process of slaughtering sheep. Non-professional actors are cast as nomads and the communal ambience within the yurt they share is precisely rendered. The local preoccupation with milk as the source of sustenance is treated as a near-mystical component of daily life. Yet, Borchu’s ostensible fealty to documentary realism notwithstanding, it’s also difficult not to feel that she, wittingly or unwittingly, is feeding into a Western audience’s desire to view the rituals of daily life in Mongolia as charmingly “exotic.”
In truth, Black Milk belongs to a characteristically German, quasi-feminist cinematic subgenre: films like Margarethe von Trotta’s Marianne and Julianne or Angela Schanelec’s My Sister’s Good Fortune that highlight tensions and rivalries between sisters who nevertheless love each other. Rather predictably, it’s not long before the sisters’ tearful reunion is sullied by simmering resentments and a cultural gap that’s not easy to bridge. Wessi, who is enamored of alluring clothes and makeup, has a beauty regimen that doesn’t resonate particularly well with the more traditional Ossi, whom Wessi chides for pining for an absent husband while pregnant. Ossi is also annoyed that her sister insists in participating in the slaughter of surplus sheep, a practice usually carried out exclusively by men. Even though the film belongs to the realm of art cinema, the sister’s melodramatic spats are all part and parcel of the sort of personal entanglements that pepper more commercial culture-clash movies.
This superficially realistic film takes an almost magical-realist turn when a predatory male intruder visits Wessi and Ossi’s abode. Although Ossi fears that this aggressive man will rape them both, Wessi repels his advances with the eponymous black milk that spurts from her breasts. It’s a somewhat odd and fanciful female empowerment motif to insert within the midst of a film that began with a documentary-like impulse to familiarize audiences with a cultural context that most Americans and Europeans know only from corny Hollywood epics such as 1965’s Genghis Khan, in which Omar Sharif portrays the legendary 13th century Mongol emperor.
Of course, the main bone of contention between the sisters is Wessi’s unabashed attraction to Terbish, a handsome neighbor. Burchu seems unsure how to depict her heroine’s sexual agenda. The main sexual encounter between Terbish and Wessi is handled with restraint. But, although the festival’s blurb hails their romance as “transgressive,” the couple’s meet-cute liaison is not much different than the flings women experience in movies where hooking up in bars instead of yurts drives the mating dance.
A film that wants to both educate and titillate, Black Milk doesn’t quite succeed on either count. Borchu’s convincing performance as the lusty Wessi is this movie’s one unassailable asset.