At first, the hushed Mongolian drama Amka and the Three Golden Rules is curiously uncomfortable to watch. It takes a few minutes to identify what’s unusual: its lack of background music, of distraction from the wide-openness of bare ground. Large swaths of silence are interrupted by the occasional hum of traditional throat singing and the sound of a child’s feet running on gravel. That child is Amka (Ganzorig Telmen), a boy whose parents’ deaths have left him the sole provider for a little sister and a selfish older brother with patchy bleached hair. But Amka doesn’t let his loss or his family’s poverty wear on him; Telmen conveys maturity and intermittent vulnerability in flickers across a face that feels both open and masked.
When Amka finds a gold coin in the grass, he is overwhelmed by the sudden possibility in his life. He buys a hat and a soccer jersey, and wastes hours playing computer games at an Internet café.
The assuredness with which Amka takes to the adult practices of consumption and dependence is chilling. Amka retreats to the countryside to stay with an uncle (Hereltogoo Chuluunbaatar) for the summer. The city kid fears horses and can’t fish, but his uncle, wearing traditional robes, insists, “Mongolians can ride naturally.”
Gruff and practical, Uncle has an eye for simplicity and detail: a twist of paper, a pine cone, a rock that is a piece of the mountain. He demands that Amka open himself up, try what he doesn’t know, and his and the film’s lack of sentimentality is like wind rushing in.