When one looks back on a director’s early works, you can usually see the beginnings of whatever will become their signature POV or narrative approach. In The Land of Lost Angels is the first feature film from writer/director Bishrel Mashbat, his prior works being shorts, and it is a striking debut, not for the tale itself, though that is engaging thanks to strong performances from co-leads Erdenemunkh Tumursukh and Iveel Mashbat, but for the manner in which Mashbat tells his story of desperation. According to the press kit for Lost Angels, Mashbat moved to the United States from Mongolia at the age of 16 to further his education, graduating from the University of Illinois at Chicago in 2013. His story is one of an outsider learning to exist in a country outside of his own and that appears in near every shot of Lost Angels in the camera position, in the dialogue, and in the underlying frustrations of Tumursukh’s Ankhaa, whose familial dilemma forms the center of the narrative. The end result is something not always riveting, but undeniably compelling.
With his brother in need of costly medical procedures and his family on the verge of selling their home, Ankhaa recruits his friend Orgil (Mashbat) to carry out a ransom scheme that will get him the funds he needs for his family. Everything goes smoothly at first until one slip-up shatters their plan, requiring them to face some unconscionable facts. The two men are faced with a dire question: when the fate of others is on the line, how far are you willing to go?
Minimalism is the center-piece of Lost Angels. Its shot in black-and-white, the camera is often locked in position with characters moving in and out of frame (allowing for the occasional pan), and the emotional tone of the performance rarely exceeds normal conversational volume. In a word, Lost Angels is controlled. Though, describing it as methodical, measured, or organized would do just as well, each leading to the same idea, though with, perhaps, slightly different connotations. Considering this is Mashbat’s first feature, the budget may be tight, which would explain why some shots are staged as they are, but I think that would be reductive to the whole considering the clear thoughtfulness on display. Take the shot which finds the father of the man they kidnap under surveillance: here, the camera is focused on the sideview mirror, so that we’re seeing the man within the frame. Others might aim to shoot the scene straight-on, but, with this staging, it communicates the presence of being watched, that the man is not alone and is, perhaps, in a spot of danger. Similarly, several driving sequences occur with the camera set in the backseat facing the front, the audience seeing the reflected eyes of whomever the scenes wants us to focus on. Mashbat *could* do something more traditional with edits, shooting close-ups and coverage, so that the audience is invited to see the people in the front seat. With this positioning, not only does Mashbat narrow the focus by creating a frame-within-the-frame (like with the sideview mirror), but the shot generates a co-conspiratorial feeling. We, the audience, aren’t just watching the film, but we’re taking part in it. Again, this may be a matter of getting clever where budget and time may not have allowed for something more typical; yet, by presenting his story in this way, Lost Angels becomes more intimate and confidential, as though Mashbat is sharing a secret with us.
When the film hit my inbox, it was positioned as “the first Mongolian American film.” Whether this is true or not matters little as what’s impressive with the setup and exploration of the characters, is how who they are (Mongolian immigrants) only matters in relation to the catalyst, yet is not unimportant to the narrative as a whole. It’s clear from the small bits of interaction with their world that both Ankhaa and Orgil have been in the United States long enough to learn English beyond general conversation, they are established in the community, and possess an understanding of the differences between Mongolian and American customs. In private, they speak a common language (not identified in any way as Khalkha, nor does it matter) and this serves as their shield from the English-speaking world. Since Mashbat relies, then, on subtitles to keep the audience dialed in to what’s going on, that conspiratorial feeling comes rushing back in. Not only do we get the basic idea of why Ankhaa needs to try this desperate act, but the audience does root for him, to a degree. Would we feel the same if the leading characters spoke our language? Likely. But it’s still a nice touch nonetheless to get the audience to lean into the story. What does matter here is how the cultural difference as two immigrants creates a tight bond that’s almost instantly recognized by the audience regarding Ankhaa and Orgil. We believe that they can rely on each other because, while not alone or without a community safety net, these two are alone in the sense that they are outsiders in America. This creates a strong us-versus-them notion that is almost comically presented in one scene as the two share a meal, discuss their romantic lives, and watch basketball. The hilarity comes from the fact that their experience in America, based on dialogue, is transient at best, with their time limited before returning. Why they feel that way isn’t explored, but I think it speaks to that sense of loneliness in a foreign land without family or community. They may have friends, even a small network of fellow Mongolians, but it’s not the same as being home. This is the weight that permeates all of Lost Angels: a desire to take care of one’s family no matter the cost.
With the approach minimal and the subtext weighted, Lost Angels rest primarily on Tumursukh and Iveel’s shoulders. This is a first film for Tumurskukh, which will surprise many as he’s incredibly natural in physicality and intonation. He’s neither commanding nor meek in a role which requires someone to be as resolute despite terrible doubts of failure. It’s a razor-thin line and he manages it with aplomb. As co-lead, this is not the first role for Iveel nor does it feel like it. His Orgil appears to be the more locally established of the two, with Iveel appearing more comfortable with the dirtier side of the plan. One would expect to feel less empathetic for Orgil given his ease with aggression, except Iveel provides a depth that allows the audience to cut through the performative nature of Orgil’s threats to see the desire for utilitarian protection underneath. With a sparse cast (the production notes list only three as “starring” out of a cast of six), it all falls on Tumursukh and Iveel and they nail it.
Though conjecture is never ideal, one can surmise that 2020 really took the wind out of the sails for In The Land of Lost Angels. It first premiered at the 2019 San Diego Asian Film Festival and hit other festivals before releasing in Mongolia in August 2020. Now it’s available on Amazon Prime Video, lost somewhere between the original features and the countless other streaming options of films old and new. This is not the ideal release for an initial feature and it would behoove audiences to become familiar with Mashbat’s work, if only because of the promise Lost Angels contains. Between he and cinematographer Mike Maliwanag, In The Land of Lost Angels is a declarative statement that they are just beginning. I, personally, am intrigued to see what’s next.
Available on Amazon Prime Video now.
Final Score: 4 out of 5.