Guest review: FilmCatcher’s Damon Smith on NYFF’s Tulpan and Chouga
Is Kazakhstan the new Romania? Two new films at NYFF illustrate the flourishing of film culture in an oil-rich former Soviet republic most people associate with the antics of comedian Sasha Baron Coen (a/k/a Borat).
The first, Chouga, is 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 husband (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,” someone opines), the outcome is anything but happy. Leisurely paced and visually lean, Omirbaev’s film is a complex, subtle drama about romantic disillusionment in which shadings of dry humor and delicate emotion are conveyed with glances, gestures, and other nonverbal cues. At times, Chouga reminded me of Aki Kaurismaki’s own deadpan adaptation of a great Russian novel, Crime and Punishment, both for its minimal aesthetic 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 lingers on non-POV 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, such as an odd sequence where each of his primary characters is framed through a doorway, alone, until the hinge on their private world swings shut, closing them off from us—and each other—for good.
Set on the barren, wind-blasted Hunger Steppe of southern Kazakhstan, Sergei Dvortsevoy’s Tulpan 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 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 exercise in ethnographic docudrama: Dvortsevoy’s portrait of life on the steppe is poignant, bittersweet, and almost riotously funny. Asa’s best friend is a goofy head case who drives a converted tractor plastered in girlie-mag porn and never tires of hearing Boney M’s “Rivers of Babylon” blasted at top volume. Ondas’s constantly revved-up toddler 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 frame via yurt flap at a tense moment.) Yet it’s the nonhuman element that makes this hinterland Kazakh drama such a unique and diverting delight. Ever-present 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.
Dvortsevoy has a documentarian’s eye for 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 an oblivious snow-white mutt). He captures it all with whip pans and elaborate 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, resolved in 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.
Damon Smith is the editor-in-chief of FilmCatcher.
Buy tickets to Chouga: [Sat Oct 11: 3]