★ ★ ★ ★
In Mongolia, where families of nomads still drink salted milk tea in their single-room ger tents and follow their flocks from one grassy spot peeking through the snow to the next, the apple-cheeked and pigtailed Aisholpan is an ordinary 13-year-old girl. She’s quite childlike by our hypersexualized Western standards, playing acrobatic games with her boarding-school classmates or treating herself to a glittery, pink barrette during a rare trip to a “nearby” town. But her father has taken the unprecedented step of honoring her wishes and training her in the usually patrilineal art of eagle falconry (“austringry,” technically, for the vocabulary nerds and eagle hunters out there). Interviews with wizened elders about this rash action prove that mansplaining is a phenomenon that crosses all cultures, as they give familiar justifications for excluding women (it’s too hard, women are too weak, tradition must be honored). Later, there’s a delicious moment during Aisholpan’s progress when the naysayers must wriggle out of eating their own words.
The ghost of Nanook of the North and its fudged recreations haunt The Eagle Huntress. There’s an itch of disbelief as the events that mark Aisholpan’s path from schoolgirl to huntress—claiming her fledgling, training, competition, hunting in the snow—are too conveniently laid out for director Otto Bell’s cameras; in addition, the scenes involving Aisholpan’s point-of-view were presumably recorded by a GoPro, yet the cutaways shot from the ground reveal no camera strapped to her head. But there’s no fakery in a yikes!-laden sequence in which Aisholpan must clamber down a craggy mountainside, supported only by a rope knotted around her waist, to scoop up a gigantic eagle chick and bundle it in a blanket before the mother gets back to the nest. There are 13-year-olds in the United States who aren’t allowed to turn on the stove when a parent isn’t home. Imagine what they would be capable of in a society that expects their competence instead.
Parents of daughters may make a special effort to bring their children to the theater for a dose of girl power, but Aisholpan, resplendent and queenly in her embroidered tunics and fur hat, stroking and clucking to her fearsome bird of prey as if it were a beloved guinea pig, is a gender-transcending heroine for all kids who dream of a wild life in communion with nature. (Sensitive children might be disturbed during a brief, un-sensationalistic scene of a ram being slaughtered and an eagle downing its prey, but there’s ample warning time given to shield their eyes.) This is a wonderfully uplifting, family-appropriate film with a peaceful and triumphant pace that’s as refreshing as a lungful of clear mountain air. In trying to describe this movie to someone else, this critic misremembered the title as “Hunter Empress.” That’s still just about right.