28 May 2019

Tulpan: a slice of life on the steppe

Asa (Ashat Kuchıncherekov), a sheep and Boni (Tolepbergen Baısakalov) in Tulpan

The next up on my Kazakh film-watching list (which is rapidly, and blessedly, turning into a Soviet, Ostern and Central Asian film-watching list), is Sergei Dvortsevoi’s 2008 comedy Tulpan (or Tıýlpan «Тюлпан»).

Before discussing this truly sublime and touching cinematic masterpiece, however, let me get something off my chest: Sacha Baron Cohen. Dvortsevoi has stated in interviews that he saw Borat, was not offended by Borat, understood that Borat was at bottom about American and not Kazakh culture. But at the same time he dislikes comparisons between his film and Borat, which were apparently fairly common at the time it came out, precisely because Borat has nothing to do with real life in Kazakhstan. Personally, I didn’t think Borat was that good even as a commentary on American culture. And I’m not sure I can be as gracious to Cohen as Dvortsevoi is in his interviews; since, being from Wisconsin, I think I’d probably take it personally too if the only thing that anybody outside my state knew about it was, say, Ashton Kutcher. Now, I’m not about to support the Kazakhstani government’s bans on Borat DVDs and super-brite active-reflective yellow slingshot bikinis – but the reaction of the government (and a lot of the Kazakh people who watched the movie and hated it) is, on a certain level, completely sympathetic and understandable.

Now, let’s move onto this movie, which is actually – what’s the word? ah, yes – good. Dvortsevoi takes an approach to filmmaking which is probably best summed up as patient observation. He took a camera, went to the set – complete with real yurts and live herds of animals – and just started filming. He had a full script, apparently, of which probably only a fifth made it to the final cut. But it’s clear from Dvortsevoi’s direction and cinematography, which favours long continuous shots and ‘shaky cams’, that even if this method requires a lot of trial and error, the final results that we get to see are entirely worth it.

The storyline is actually fairly simple and spare. Asa (Ashat Kuchıncherekov), a Russian navy vet who is returning home from Sakhalin to his home on the Kazakh steppes, is staying with his sister Samal (Samal Eslıamova) and her husband Ondas (Ondasyn Besıkbasov) and their incredibly-cute children. He dreams of getting his own yurt, his own flock and his own ranch – but before he can get any of those things, he has to get married first. The only eligible bachelorette for miles around is Tulpan, whom Asa courts… but to little avail. (Tulpan thinks his ears are too big.) The film centres around his continuing efforts to woo Tulpan and to adjust to life on the steppes with his extended family.

A lot of the humour derives from the incongruities of life in rural Kazakhstan. The vast, bare, scrubby steppe with not a single landmark in sight, and the comparatively-tiny people working to make a home in it, themselves provide a source of irony. This may seem like a really odd comparison to make, but Dvortsevoi’s penchant for long, flat candid shots of the characters on the steppe produce a deadpan form of situational humour which reminded me more than a bit of some scenes from James Gunn’s Super. This is punctuated and driven home by the children of Ondas and Samal’s yurt. The adorable Nuka, who rides around on a stick as if it were a horse and dreams of going to Almaty, at times seems to provide a similitude to Asa’s dreams and wishes. His older brother Beke has a photographic memory, which he shows off by repeating for his father’s benefit, line-for-line, the news headlines he hears from state-owned media, broadcast to his treasured portable radio – which often have to do with the great plans for Kazakhstan’s œconomic development and modernisation spearheaded by the Big Bread himself, or else with news about parts of the world that may as well be on another planet. The middle daughter, Maha, entertains herself by singing – in a clear and pretty voice that isn’t always appreciated by the male members of her family – Kazakh folk songs. Asa gets on well with another local chap, the vegetable-peddling, Jeep-driving and Page 3 girl-loving Boni (Tolepbergen Baısakalov), who seems to embody a love of the West that doesn’t quite match his understanding of it. His favourite song, for example, is Boney M’s version of ‘Rivers of Babylon’. Samal, Asa’s sister, seems to be the most grounded character – patient and sweet, whom nonetheless we see most of the time in (or tired from) household chores or in attempts to supplicate her husband or keep her brother from arguing with him.

Asa himself doesn’t quite seem to fit in, having a big-city background, and he cottons on early to the fact that Ondas seems to resent him slightly. He tells outlandish tales to his prospective in-laws about his naval adventures – in particular those involving man-eating octopi. His dogged pursuit of Tulpan might come off a bit too strong and even stalkerish given that he knows very little about her (and never even sees her face; nor do we the audience!), but Asa is a wholly sympathetic and endearing character, and that comes off particularly in his kind and gentle treatment of animals, of which this film features many and sundry. Asa clearly loves Tulpan’s parents’ kitten, and he looks after his brother-in-law’s flock for him – albeit not particularly effectively at first, since he loses a sheep. We learn that Ondas’s flock is in bigger trouble, too, since the ewes are having stillborn lambs. (This prompts a visit from a hand-rolled cigarillo-chewing veterinarian who arrives with a sick camel in his motorcycle sidecar.)

The most touching part of the film is when, after a heated argument with Ondas, Asa storms off onto the steppe to find a ewe in the middle of a painful birthing. This is filmed live in one long continuous shot. With no one else in sight or earshot, Asa is forced to help the ewe give birth, and one can’t help but cheer as Asa not only successfully delivers, but that the lamb is apparently alive! (There’s definitely a note of All Creatures Great and Small in this film’s appeal, though the steppe is a good deal brighter than a barn with BBC-standard lighting.)

It’s very difficult to do justice to Tulpan in writing. This is essentially a slice-of-life film (it would be wrong and misleading to call it a documentary; it’s a crafted, scripted story which often feels like one) whose appeal is consistently understated even in its most glowing reviews, precisely because its content was often so jarringly unfamiliar to Western audiences at the time it was released. But of all the Kazakh movies I’ve reviewed to date, this one not only ranks easily among my favourites, but it’s also the one which left the deepest impression on me. I would most heartily recommend it.

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