Released 2019. Director: Bishrel Mashbat
DESPERATE MEN IN THE MOVIES ALWAYS RESORT TO CRIME, that's one thing you can bet on every time. You can also wager safely that these men are not inherently evil or even minor felons. They are often regular people forced into a corner. In the City of Lost Angels is built on this premise, a quasi-arthouse contemplation billed as the first Mongolian-American film from writer-director Bashiel Mashbat.
Set in Los Angeles, the movie looks resolutely at two characters, Orgil and Ankhaa, both Mongolian immigrants down on their luck. To solve their money problems, they abduct an adult son of a wealthy family.
The plan is straight forward. Snatch the victim as he returns home in the night, blindfold, bound and gag the unconscious man and hide him in a motel bathroom for days until daddy pays up. These guys even mix chemicals to make their home-made chloroform.
For his first feature film, Mashbat shows a gift for visual storytelling. He uses simple shots to suggest, a light touch without feeling a need to push or belabour, an indication of a director who trusts in the intelligence of his audience.
A bare fridge, a bucket under a leak, a few quick shots of grubby side streets with discarded furniture tell us what we need to know about the characters we’re about to see. A silent sequence framed by a side-view mirror is inspired. Having the camera behind Orgil and Ankhaa soon after their introduction creates the impression we’re following behind them, trying to peep over their tall shoulders to see what they’re up to before being dropped into their scheme full-on. And the movie’s final shot featuring a silhouette is an effective shorthand to end with elegant economy.
Mashbat also relishes in extended stationary shots and directs these scenes with confidence, allowing each moment to build and register without cutting away or shifting perspectives. The movie moves at a steady even pace, never hurried, at times it slows to a stand-still, which is rare in a crime drama.
This is a dark story, in more than one sense of the word. Some outdoor scenes are filmed in the night and the screen simply bleeds into blackness. Instead of its black-and-white cinematography, perhaps a saturated, deep-contrast palette might have given the storytelling an evocative edge.
If you’re getting the feeling this is not your usual kidnap drama, you’re right. Orgil and Ankhaa are the primary focus, to the exclusion of everyone else. We know next to nothing about the man they kidnap, who remains blindfolded throughout he’s virtually faceless. We see his father from a distance a couple of times and never grasp his reaction to his son’s ordeal.
Orgil and Ankhaa occupy both ends of the character spectrum. They are aggressors and victims, protagonists in a situation of their own creation and antagonists in a world they struggle against. Apart from a brief altercation, Orgil and Ankhaa look out for each other and share a palpable bond. The two actors – Iveel Mashbat and Tumursukh Erdenemunkh – are at their best when they’re not arguing over the details, most natural when they just chill as buddies. When they’re required to be menacing thugs, they’re not always convincing.
I would like to have known more about them and I wish Mashbat had gone deeper into their back stories, to acquaint us more of the humanity of the kidnappers, this pair of ‘lost angels’. Their desperation for a quick financial salvation is conveyed second-hand through snippets of conversations about a sick brother back home. We know it, but we don’t feel it.
What the script needs is a little kick to get the audience more engaged in the mental space of the two men who have just crossed the line, by the law and by their own moral compass. It needs a touch of the pathos Mashbat invests fluently in his short film Tides of Time (2013) about an elderly Russian father trying to reconnect with his adult son. (You can watch it on YouTube.)
By the time the end credits roll, there’s no question In the Land of Lost Angels is a notable debut, with a quiet nod to the early works by the Coen brothers. Surely couldn’t say the same of many first-timers.
Click image above to view trailer. New window will open.