Sunday, April 05, 2009

Review: "Tulpan"

Over the last few years I've discovered that I have an affinity for slice of life films about nomadic desert life in central Asia. It all started back in 2004 when I first saw Luigi Falorni and Byambasuren Davaa's extraordinary Mongolian documentary, The Story of the Weeping Camel, and continued to last year with Chinese director Quanan Wang's Tuya's Marriage.

Now along comes Tulpan, the first narrative feature from Kazakh documentarian Sergei Dvortsevoy. While Tulpan shares many stylistic similarities with the previously mentioned films, it also has arguably the strangest premise.

Asa (Askat Kuchinchirekov) is a sailor who has returned home from the service to his sister's family, a close knit group of shepherding nomads who live in the steppes of Kazakhstan.

Asa dreams of tending his own herd and having a family of his own, in a yurt complete with modern amenities such as electricity and satellite TV. But his boss will not allow him to tend his own herd until he takes a wife. So he gets his brother-in-law, Ondas (Ondas Besikasov), to introduce him to the only eligible young woman in the region, a mysterious and flighty girl named Tulpan.

But Tulpan rejects him without ever actually meeting him, citing his "big ears" as the reason she doesn't like him. Asa is taken aback by this, but his resolve is undeterred. He becomes even more determined to win Tulpan's heart and get his own herd of sheep. The problem is, he has never actually seen Tulpan. She sat behind a curtain and peeked at him while he regaled her parents with wild tales of being attacked by an octopus while in the Navy.

Tulpan remains a mysterious figure for the film's entire running time. She is an unattainable enigma, a hummingbird always flitting just out of Asa's reach. And soon he begins to wonder if his dream isn't just as unreachable as Tulpan, as she becomes less and less a person, and more and more a faceless idea.

It's interesting then that we never actually see Tulpan's face. She is always hidden, her face just out of sight of the camera. The only glimpses we ever catch of her are of the back of her head. Is she as beautiful as she is rumored to be? Or is Asa's attraction to her merely out of his desire to receive his own herd and start a life? Those are the questions that hang over Tulpan, a movie named for a character we never see who becomes a metaphor for a dream that may never be. But that isn't what makes the film so interesting. To be honest, I really didn't care that much about Tulpan as a character. I was more interested in the details of Asa's life on the steppes.

More so than Story of the Weeping Camel and Tuya's Marriage, Tulpan requires quite a bit of patience on the part of the viewer. It has a tendency to drag, but it rewards the viewer with moments of great beauty. The film's astonishing single shot lamb birth scene is extraordinary, and it's moments like these that really make the film work.

Dvortsevoy directs with a gentle humor in the way he observes the nomads' life. The performances of the cast are uniformly excellent, especially by Samal Eslyamova as Asa's sister Samal. The family scenes are the highlights of the film, each one with their own sets of quirks and identifiable traits - the daughter likes to sing loudly and randomly at increasingly inappropriate times, the oldest son recites the radio news broadcasts word for word for his father every evening, and the youngest son, a toddler, is just irrepressibly adorable (and likes to play with turtles). It's a fascinating window into a rapidly disappearing world, and a culture that is rarely seen in the outside world. Beautifully filmed and exquisitely crafted, Tulpan succeeds in its own modest and unassuming way.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

TULPAN; Directed by Sergei Dvortsevoy; Stars Askat Kuchinchirekov, Samal Eslyamova, Ondas Besikasov; Not Rated; In Kazakh w/English subtitles; Now playing at the Film Forum in Manhattan. Opens in Los Angeles April 24.

4 comments:

Daniel Getahun said...

Interesting. I think this is playing at our MSPIFF in a few weeks. Have to double check as I'm confused with so many titles now.

One of the screeners I reviewed is Kazakh - you might like it considering your affinity for central Asia - "Song From the Southern Seas".

Sam Juliano said...

I wasn't a fan of TUYA'S MARRIAGE, but I did love THE STORY OF THE WEEPING CAMEL, and I almost saw this film you are reviewing here over the weekend, ut couldn't quite negotiate it. However your most favorable (descriptive) appraisal does strengthen my resolve.

"It's interesting then that we never actually see Tulpan's face. She is always hidden, her face just out of sight of the camera. The only glimpses we ever catch of her are of the back of her head. Is she as beautiful as she is rumored to be? Or is Asa's attraction to her merely out of his desire to receive his own herd and start a life? Those are the questions that hang over Tulpan, a movie named for a character we never see who becomes a metaphor..."

Very nice, and a further narrative intrigue.

Sam Juliano said...

LOL on the last post!!!!!!

Matthew Lucas said...

That comment in Chinese was sex spam. Just deleted it, lol.