Elevate Difference

The Two Horses of Genghis Khan

When actor Urna Chahar-Tugchi was growing up, her grandmother showed her the hand-carved neck of an ancient violin—all that was left of a precious family heirloom. On it were a few words from a once-popular song called "The Two Horses of Genghis Khan." "No other song touches the soul of the Mongolian people like this one," Chahar-Tugchi says in Davaa Byambasuren’s powerful documentary, a tribute to cultural legacies called The Two Horses of Genghis Khan.

The story revolves around a promise Chahar-Tugchi made to her grandmother shortly before the elderly woman passed on—she would one day have the violin restored, making sure to inscribe every word of the song on the instrument’s body. But there’s a problem: No one seems to remember more than a refrain or two of the beloved tune.

As the story unfolds viewers learn that during the Cultural Revolution (1965-1976) China destroyed all things deemed “bourgeois” in the geographic regions it controlled. “During the Cultural Revolution a lot of things from everyday life were not permitted. Singing old songs would land you in jail,” Chahar-Tugchi reports. Instead, the regime sought to homogenize the culture, forcefully turning more than fifty ethnic groups—among them Mongolians, Tibetans, and Uyghurs—into one Chinese people.

The resentment of the groups being crushed continues, filmmaker Byambasuren implies, and has led many people to attempt to reclaim their lost histories. Chahar-Tugchi’s story fits squarely into this framework and the film traces a road trip undertaken by the now forty-two-year-old actor as she traveled—on foot, horseback, and in a van—from Inner to Outer Mongolia, searching for elders who might be able to assist her.

Byambasuren’s cinematography is spectacular and this moving—if at times preachy—eighty-eight-minute film depicts a staggeringly beautiful part of the world. One exquisite landscape after another is presented—and interviews with the people residing in these remote area are revelatory. One man, for example, offers a sobering note, advising Chahar-Tugchi—and the audience—that the natural beauty of the landscape is deceptive. In fact, he says, people and animals are being poisoned, and are dying, because of the sodium cyanide used to extract gold from the mountains.

It’s horrifying information and Chahar-Tugchi is visibly moved by what she is learning. At the same time, she refuses to be sidetracked from her search for the lyrics to her grandmother’s favorite song. Still, it gets her thinking, and as her exploration continues, the film asks a resonant—and always relevant—question: must old things be destroyed for something new to evolve?

As Chahar-Tugchi ponders this notion, she meets an elderly woman—she looks to be about 100—who was once a renowned singer. It’s a pivotal moment. “No, I don’t know the song anymore,” the woman says upon hearing Chahar-Tugchi’s request. “I’ve forgotten everything.” As she speaks, her facial expression changes from welcoming to fearful. Tensions lurk as the two continue to converse, but finally begin to melt after Chahar-Tugchi sings for the old woman. Ultimately, caution is thrown to the winds: The elder relents and sings "The Two Horses of Genghis Khan."

It’s a touching, maybe even stirring, denouement. “The two horses of Genghis Khan long for their flock/ When the snow on the mountains melts/ The brothers find their way back home again,” Chahar-Tugchi sings.

As she trills the long-forgotten tune, past and present blur. While Mao might scowl, the rest of us are reminded of the centrality of culture to political resistance.

Yes, we will sing and dance at the revolution.

Written by: Eleanor J. Bader, September 30th 2010