A teenager runs away from the drunkenness and poverty of his rural home and moves into the city. It’s not an uncommon story, sadly, but in the hands of Mongolian director Byamba Sakhya, Remote Control becomes both a survival story and an exploration of the line between fantasy and reality.
Tsog bivouacs himself on the roof of an apartment block in Ulan Bator. His few possessions include a sketchbook, in which he draws flip cartoons of an historical monk who, the myth goes, invented a parachute and leapt from cliffs to feel the sensation of flight. Tsog becomes infatuated with a woman, Anu, living in the flats opposite. But Anu has her own problems: a fear of flying has led to a row with her lover who’s left home and is not answering his phone.
Tsog also owns a small telescope and we watch him gaze through it at Anu as she sits in her lounge. She is mooning over a picture her lover has left, in which a woman flies like a kite behind a man on horseback, her long, streaming hair clutched in his hand.
Tsog’s desire grows, and as it does so he surrenders himself more and more to the dubious influence of a pickpocket. He steals a ‘universal’ TV remote, which he has previously researched in a TV shop; we watch this rough peasant boy bamboozle the shop assistant as lorries rumble past in the background, kicking up desert dust.
While Anu is away, Tsog flicks at long distance through the channels on her TV, watching programmes through his binoculars and checking listings on a cheap magazine. In Tsog’s mind, he and the woman are connected, but his grasp on reality seems doubtful.
The film is beautifully, subtly drawn. The flatness of the urban streets and the wind-whipped rural slum Tsog leaves behind contrast strongly with the vivid colours of the boy’s desires and dreams. The hypnotic score is used sparingly and chimes with the moods of the film, which feel real and unforced. Narratives are seemingly left hanging and nothing is spelt out, but the threads have been woven with considerable skill.
There’s perhaps a voyeuristic impulse in watching films set in developing countries, particularly those you’ve never visited. Sakhya, in his first full-length feature, plays with this slyly. Mongolia and Ulan Bator are revealed as places of increasingly modern paradoxes – western cars and flyblown villages, Tsog’s headphones and sneakers set against the despair of his family.
That said, there’s little of the fetishism of things that we’re used to. Tsog’s pleasure in his stolen TV remote and its technical magic are genuine, despite its provenance: innocent delight rather than greedy acquisitiveness.
Sakhya is not averse to twitching other, less salutary feelings. The scenes in which Tsog watches Anu, her bare legs on view, are subtle, knowing nudges. The implied threat of the pickpocket feels real enough. But it’s done so deftly, with such grace, that the discomfort rarely lingers.
In the final scene of this remarkable film, set against a background of prayer flags and apartment blocks, Tsog stares at us as the camera draws away, a rural boy facing urban dilemmas which may in the end prove too much for him. But there’s also a realisation there, an awakening. It feels like a consolation.