Another film from Kazakhstan, but unlike the NYFF's 'Chouga,' far from being set in the newly rich urban part of the country. Dvortsevoy, a successful documentary filmmaker, chose to make this, his first feature, in the ethnographic mode, among shepherds in the Betpak Dala, the steppe, a region of scrubby grass, dirt, flatland, whirling wind storms and stormy skies. The technique is to work in near-wilderness, among non-actors, with nothing but camels or donkeys or rugged trucks to travel by, surrounded by a herd of sheep and a few goats, living in a yurt. The method and setting resemble those of Dava and Falorni's 'The Weeping Camel,' but the focus this time is not as anecdotal and the story raises fewer troubling questions. It's still not certain that the effect of "authenticity" means the events we're witnessing truthfully depict life in the steppe. But the sense of trying to adapt to a harsh environment and culture is powerful and the landscape is awesome, and the sheep births we witness are unquestionably real.
The protagonist is Asa (Askat Kuchinchirekov). He is a young sailor who's just finished his military service who comes out to the "Hunger Steppe" to live with the family of his sister Samal (Samal Eslyamova), headed by her husband, an older man, Ondas (Ondasyn Besikasov). Sailors draw their dreams under the lapels of their uniforms and Asa's sketch shows the plain with a yurt, children, camels, and the sun shining. Apparently he is from somewhere else (it's not clear how his sister got to be Ondas' wife) but he doesn't want city life, he wants to make his paradise out here. He dreams of prospering as a shepherd, doing so well he can buy solar panels to put on his yurt so he can have electricity. His pal is the nutty Boni (Tulepbergen Baisakalov), a transport driver whose truck is plastered with magazine photos of nude babes and who plays loud pop music as he drives madly across the plain. It's Boni who first brings Asa to the yurt of Ondas and who dreams and schemes with him.
Driven by Boni, Ondas takes Asa more than once a day's ride to a family who have an eligible daughter, the beautiful Tulpan (Tulip), whom the suitor only glimpses. She watches behind a screen. At these interviews Asa has an unfortunate tendency to dwell on a story about how he successfully fought an octopus. It doesn't seem to go over with Tulpan's aged dad (Amangeldi Nurzhanbayev ) or her mother (Tazhyban Kalykulova), who apparently has listened with a sympathetic ear to her desire to go off to college. Tulpan says she doesn't care for Asa, anyway, says his ears are too big. End of story. Ondas says that if Asa gets a wife, he can have a flock of his own, and only then. But there are no other women around. Tulpan becomes little more than Asa's dream, like the idyllic yurt and flock and prosperity and happy life. What can Asa do? Well, he can find a lost pregnant sheep and assist in its giving birth to a healthy lamb. But he still is very ambivalent about whether he wants to stay and face Ondas' disapproval or strike out for Sakhalin island as Boni wants or go to the capital, Astana, where there are probably jobs--and eligible women. But what stands out in 'Tulpan' is Asa's dream--the little picture under the collar of his sailor jacket that seems to draw him back every time he packs up his little valise and starts to go away.
Dvortsevoy populates his landscape and the yurt with noisy characters to break the sounds of silence and the roaring winds. Samal and her daughter Nika love to sing at the top of their lungs, with sometimes pleasing, sometimes grating effect. Beke is a little boy with a great memory who listens to the radio broadcasts in Russian and can recite the national and global and cultural news verbatim on Ondas' command. Ondas himself is often barking out harsh commands. There is the smallest boy, who runs around chirping and laughing all the time riding a wooden stick, an indomitable spirit and perhaps potentially as nutty as Boni.
The omnipresent sheep of Ondas' flock seem to be too often growing weak and dying. A vet (Esentai Tulendiev) has to come in with Ondas' boss to assess the cause: he decrees that the animals are not sick (or poisoned by chemical waste like the ones in the Naples region), buy just hungry. The yurt has to be moved to better grazing land.
This is an Arte co-production. It's not a great film by any means; it's technical aspects are minimal. But some will be impressed by its vividness. Asa is a winsome character and there are moments when the wind and the sky create a wild poetry. The sheep, in all their noise and disorder, fill the screen powerfully too. This may have been designed to be seen on television but it is powerful on a big screen.
The film won the Un Certain Regard Prize--Groupama Gan Foundation for Cinema, 2008, and is part of the NYFF.