Tulpan Arrives (Finally!) at Film Forum
Last September, at the 2008 New York Film Festival, I had the pleasure of seeing Sergey Dvortsevoy’s Tulpan, one of two Kazakh films in the program that left a lasting impression on me. Since then, I’ve been evangelizing the film to anyone who’ll listen. On Wednesday, New York’s Film Forum will roll out this boisterously bestial, one-of-a-kind charmer for a two-week run. Below is a review I wrote of the film after that initial screening, when I could still feel the wind, the sand, and the camel spit on my exhilarated face.
Set on the barren, wind-blasted Hunger Steppe of southern Kazakhstan, the first narrative 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.