In the Land of Lost Angels (USA, 2019)

An ill brother back home in Mongolia prompts a lie that is the point of departure for writer-director Bishrel Mashbat’s riveting and impressive debut feature. In an early scene, Ankhaa (Erdenemunkh Tumursukh) speaks to his family in Mongolia from his small SoCal apartment in Koreatown about how money need no longer be a worry for them, especially for his brother: he has secured a well-paying job and his friend “Mike” is going to help him out. “Mike,” as it turns out, is Orgil (Iveet Mashbat), a fellow Mongolian with whom Ankhaa has hatched a plan to bring about the aforementioned “well-paying job.” What is more, Orgil “helping him out” in actuality involves the kidnapping of the son of a family for whom Orgil once made a furniture delivery and demanding ransom. Cloaked by Los Angeles night, Mashbat charts the kidnapping and the subsequent phases of waiting and ransom negotiation in a motel room in a highly absorbing yet de-dramatised, even observational documentary-like manner, made all the more simultaneously cryptic and mundane through Mike Maliwanag’s cinematography. Though presented in the trappings of the kidnapping thriller, the familial motivation and trepidation of the plan going awry gradually gives way to the film’s ultimate focus, dramatic crux, and striking suspense: the power dynamic between Ankhaa and Orgil, a fragile and tense dynamic whose seams are constantly torn in one moment and resewn in another, as the situation unfolds in the course of a week.

When the film begins, Ankhaa and Orgil have already agreed on the plan and are fine-tuning the execution of the job. And soon after, the plan is put into motion. While perhaps abrupt, in doing so, Mashbat smartly spares the film of any superfluous scenes or exposition regarding the two men’s friendship, such as the circumstances of their meeting — not to mention how they ended up coming up with the plan and forming a pact of brotherhood to see it through in the first place. Such details are largely left ambiguous more than revealed in the course of the film, which in fact helps to ratchet up the suspense that begins to simmer from the pair’s working relationship even before they kidnap the son, Scott (Mike Cali), in front of his house. Once Scott is in their possession, as it were, the film begins to readjust its lens and use of the kidnapping and abduction genre elements, with the captor-kidnapped relationship and ransom negotiation becoming of secondary importance, and subtly morphs into something else. Though already present in the pre-kidnapping sequences, disagreements between the two men about Scott and the next steps crop up more frequently and intensely. While some of the disagreements may be small, they nevertheless give brief yet significant glimpses into each man’s character, background, and the fundamental differences between them. For Orgil, any wrong turn in the job immediately equals executing Scott, all in the name of self-preservation. For Ankhaa, regardless of what may happen, they leave Scott unscathed, in the name of propriety.

This eventual focus on the two men — their partnership dynamic and differences — is reflected in the film’s choice of tight framing for a number of sequences. Accompanying such framing is the notable use of two-shots in which Ankhaa and Orgil occupy either end of the frame (for example, facing or with their backs to the camera). Additionally, the largely handheld camerawork also occasionally tracks between the two men in the tight space of the motel room during conversation, denoting their division/isolation and collaboration all at once. These visual notes nicely emphasise the point-of-no-return pact of the job and this sliver of a world that they have decided to build, maintain, and dismantle together, for better or for worse. And the turning of one day into the next while moments of tension between them surface and accumulate, if not explode in one instance, all but prompt the following questions: How long or recent of a friendship do these two men represent? And by extension, how little or well does Ankhaa know Orgil and what he is really capable of doing, to Scott or even to him?

Part of the film’s strength is, indeed, how it conveys — as well as withholds — each man’s personality, which greatly contributes to the film’s slow buildup of suspense and is a testament to the strong performances of actors Tumursukh and Iveet. On the one hand, Ankhaa is much more taciturn than Orgil and the film often accompanies the latter as he goes about to make sure that all aspects of the ransom demand are proceeding smoothly and avoid possible glitches; he also deals with Scott more so than Ankhaa. In fact, the film makes a point to be with Orgil at every stage of the job since he is the one to carry it all out: getting a gun, being the one stationed in front of Scott’s house as a prelude to his kidnapping, communicating with Scott’s father to negotiate the ransom amount and monitoring his movements from day to day, getting food for Ankhaa and himself, and guiding the father on a circuitous yet trouble-free drop-off. On the other hand, from the very beginning, the film privileges Ankhaa’s perspective and sympathetic nature, elaborated by resorting to a criminal activity to obtain money to send to his family in Mongolia, while Orgil’s own motivation for not only doing the job but basically having a hand in all of its phases remains deliberately and enigmatically hazy at best, apart from the token reason of “helping a brother out.”

The simple yet nuanced (and really rather complex) narrative and visual handling of the loosening of seams of Ankhaa and Orgil’s partnership-friendship is encapsulated most grippingly — not to mention chillingly — in the film’s concluding sequences of the aftermath of the job. In particular, the last shot captures in all its clarity the opacity of Orgil’s nature and how little in fact Ankhaa knows him.

In the Land of Lost Angels is available on Amazon Prime.