Kazakh Film: Chouga and Tulpan
Every major film festival presents a gallery of cinema offerings and possible discoveries for those curious enough to seek out unfamiliar work by international narrative-film artists and imagemakers. The New York Film Festival may play it safe by screening films that already have theatrical distribution, like Steven Soderbergh’s twin-halved 262-minute epic Che (IFC Films, December) or Clint Eastwood’s Changeling (Fox Searchlight), but there are also a clutch of worthy, under-the-radar films at NYFF that Gothamites will have a rare chance to see projected on the big screen. These films deserve a broader audience, but due to the metrics of today’s distribution business and the viewing habits of most paying moviegoers, most will likely fall through the cracks.
Two new films from Kazakhstan—a former Soviet republic best known here due to the notorious antics of comedian Sasha Baron Coen (a/k/a Borat)—illustrate this point beautifully. The first is Chouga, a loose adaptation of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina updated to modern-day Central Asia by Kazakh master Darezhan Omirbaev. In the film, Ainur Turgambaeva plays a regal beauty who abandons her son and home life with an aging, indifferent MP to take up with an equally affluent but feckless young lover in Paris. While her choice is born of passion (“When real love comes knocking, people do incredible things,” one character opines), the outcome is anything but happy. Leisurely paced and stripped-down in appearance, Omirbaev’s film is a complex, subtle drama about romantic disillusionment in which shadings of dry humor and delicate emotion are conveyed in glances, gestures, and other nonverbal cues. At times, Chouga reminded me of Aki Kaurismaki’s own deadpan Dostoyevsky adaptation, Crime and Punishment, both for its minimal aesthetic style and flat affect. But there is a gentle poetry to Omirbaev’s personal vision that creeps into the bleak, color-bleached public spaces and modestly well-appointed homes that house his gallery of lovelorn and sexually dissatisfied characters. The director has a peculiar fascination with light fixtures—several times he holds on shots of lamps and chandelier medallions—as well as audiovisual screens (TVs, GameBoy, videotape). But he has a particular feel for capturing moments of solitude and inner reflection, too, whether the troubled Chouga’s rhythmically lit, then unlit face in a railway compartment, or an odd sequence where each of his primary characters is framed through a doorway, alone, until the hinge on their private world and unknowable thoughts swings shut, closing them off from us—and each other—for good.
Alongside this quintessentially urban fable of longing and disenchantment stands Tulpan, its yurt-dwelling country cousin at NYFF. Set on the barren, wind-blasted Hunger Steppe of southern Kazakhstan, the first feature by documentary filmmaker Sergei Dvortsevoy concerns the efforts of Asa, a nomadic sheep herder, to court the painfully shy, ostensibly beautiful teen daughter of the nearest living family. (Though we never see Tulpan’s face or figure, we do know her opinion: Asa has “big ears.”) Meanwhile, there is tension at home between Asa and his brother-in-law Ondas, who struggles with his family to eke out a subsistence amid harsh weather and a mysterious plague that is killing newborn lambs. But don’t go thinking this is a bleak film about an exotic, forbidding place: Dvortsevoy’s portrait of life on the steppe is poignant, bittersweet, and almost riotously funny. Asa’s goofy, pop-music-obsessed pal, who drives a converted tractor plastered in girlie-mag porn, never tires of hearing Boney M’s “Rivers of Babylon” blasted at top volume. And while Ondas’s preteen daughter irritates him with her open-throated folk singing, his constantly revved-up toddler son is a maniacal, wind-up screech machine with some of the best lines (mostly unscripted) in the film. (“I’m a monster!” he bellows, ripping into the center frame via yurt flap at a particularly tense moment.) Yet it’s the nonhuman element that makes this hinterland Kazakh drama such a unique and diverting delight. Ever-present on the soundtrack are wind squalls, ferocious dust storms, and a deafening symphony of bleats, honks, grunts, howls, and other unidentifiable outbursts courtesy of the camels and sheep with whom the family, played by a game cast of nonprofessionals, cohabitates. These beasts aren’t cute and preternaturally inquisitive, as they would be in a Disney film; they’re animals, and act like it.
When it comes to people, Dvortsevoy may traffic in comical grotesques, such as Tulpan’s disapproving, babushka-like mother, but he also has a documentarian’s eye for capturing unreproducible moments (e.g. in one sequence, a dust devil thrashes the landscape, tens of meters from the actors), as well as a naturalist’s sense of the sublime (an ominous band of storm clouds gathering above a gristle-munching, snow-white mutt). He captures it all with whip pans and elaborate handheld camera movements, tracking his actors through their paces in a way that suggests the chaotic urgency of their existence. Though Tulpan deals with unfulfilled longing, family tension, and the yawning abyss between city lifestyles and the hardships of surviving the steppe, perhaps the film’s true subject is the antithesis of man and nature, and its once-viable resolution in pre-agrarian society with the symbiosis between human and animal needs. When Asa assists a helplessly pregnant ewe at the emotional climax of the film, this on-camera live birth feels at once like an intoxicating revelation—and a paean to a vanished time we’ve lost all meaningful connection to, at least in the developed world, perhaps forever–