Tulpan (2008) dir. Sergei Dvortsevoy
Starring: epbergen Baisakalov, Ondas Besikbasov, Samal Esljamova, Askhat Kuchencherekov
By Alan Bacchus
We've never seen a landscape as dull as this make for such peculiar and inspired cinema. We're in the desert of Kazakhstan, which is even remoter and more alien than the Borat version, a land of flat, infinite horizons, perpetual gusting winds, camels, sheep, a hut or two and one motor vehicle. That's it. That's all we get visually from 'Tulpan', Sergei Dvortsevoy's feature debut that won the En Certain Regard Award at Cannes in 2008; it's a fresh, funny, emotionally resonant and wholly unique experience.
Asa is one of the stranger movie protagonists we've seen in a while: a Kazakh youth with a funny face, short hair parted in the middle, wingtip bangs and big Prince Charles ears. He's just returned from a tour with the Russian navy and he's introduced telling wild tales of far-off lands to his family members; it's revealed later that it's part of Asa's ritual courtship for the hand of a local gal Tulpan. Unfortunately, despite never meeting, Tulpan rejects him solely based on the size of his ears. It's earth shattering to Asa, whose only dream is to raise a family and a flock of sheep in his homeland. But without a wife this is impossible. Poor Asa, as Tulpan is the only single girl in the vicinity, and like his brother-in-law, Ondas, argues: "he's got two arms and two legs, what's not to like?"
Dvortsevoy isn't so much concerned with detailing a romance as showing us the strange lifestyle of accepted sparseness and solitude of the Kazakh people. The camera lingers on the wide expanses of the land and moves only when motivated by the people and animals that cross its path. Even when nothing is happening the sound of whistling winds and the grunting of camels and sheep are strangely fascinating. Much time is spent with the sheep ― an important aspect of the livelihood of the characters. There's a problem with the pregnant females giving birth to still babies and Asa and Ondas's investigation makes for an eye-opening lesson in sheep birthing and mouth-to-mouth lamb CPR.
There are no overt gags but these strange, otherworldly moments contrasted against the characters' awareness of the world and pop culture is deadpan hilarious. The use of Boney M's "River of Babylon" is a great ironic moment; Asa and his friend 'Boni' in the middle of the desert rocking out to the '70s German/West Indian disco-reggae band is a symbol of connectivity even in the remotest places on Earth.