Lisa Schwarzbaum, sagacious critic at large of Entertainment Weekly, said of Tulpan, "If you see only one comic love story from Kazakhstan this year, choose this prize-winning honey". Surely tongue-in-cheek but a more straightforwardly profound statement on this film has yet to be uttered. Indeed, if you do see only one comic love story from Kazakhstan this year...
Seriously though, Tulpan is the story of a lone family of sheepherders somewhere in the steppes of southern Kazakhstan and the way they deal with their daily lives in this inhospitable landscape known as the hunger steppes. We get the hardened patriarch Ondas, his beautiful and suffering wife Samal, their three rambunctious children - the eldest of which recites the news he has learned on the radio with a seemingly photographic memory, another giddily shrills out ear-piercing songs to the obvious annoyance of her gruff father and the youngest bent on swatting everyone around him with a stick - and a slew of bleating, grunting, hooting and hollering livestock. The crux of the film though sits with Asa, brother of Samal and seeming bane to his brother-in-law Ondas. Played with a naive energy by Askhat Kuchencherekov, Asa spends the film trying oh so vainly to marry a young girl - the never seen but oft talked of and pined over titular Tulpan - and start his own sheep herd complete with a yurt of his very own. It is Asa's luckless attempt to woo the standoffish Tulpan and secure his own much dreamed of future that is the heart of this sweetly desolate story.
This first feature by Russian ethno-documentarian Sergei Dvortsevoy, and winner of the Prix Un Certain Regard at Cannes, is a spectacular visual and aural experience well worth your unsuspecting time. Replete with stunningly extended unbroken shots reminiscent of Tarkovsky, Reygadas, Sokurov and Bela Tarr, Tulpan is a remarkable feat of cinematic chutzpah made real. Perhaps Dvotsevoy is not exactly in the aforementioned strata quite yet, he has designed and built a film worthy of drawing some attention away from those same said aforementioned. Designed and photographed with a sparse fluidity and an eye for quiet detail in a world that is nothing but wide open nothingness, this barren scarred landscape appears as if some alien world out of Frank Herbert or maybe even the (again) aforementioned Tarkovsky. Much like the equally sparse and more-than-equally charming ethnographic film Fast Runner from 2000 and the whirling dervish Mexican new wave film Silent Light from last year, Tulpan is not only a marvel to marvel at (his use of a camera eye is beyond reproach even if he stills falls just a wee bit short of what takes a film from the subtle gradations of great to fantastic), but also a blending of fiction storytelling with the most documentary of demeanor.
Much like the ethnographic demi-docs of Robert Flaherty and Werner Herzog, it is Dvortsevoy's blending of fact and fiction, of drama and documentary, of the real and the make-believe that makes Tulpan work on an even deeper level than the mere awe-inspiring artistic filmmaking that one first sees and hears. And, just like Flaherty and Herzog, Dvortsevoy lived with his subjects/actors right out there on those harsh, unforgiving steppes. Sleeping, eating, drinking and singing with cast and crew. This immersion into a culture (real or otherwise) brings an even whole other level of playing field to the game. And it is Dvortsevoy's subtly evocative camera that brings we the viewers into these supposed lives as well, until we feel as if we too are sleeping, eating, drinking and singing in their ramshackle yurt as well.
Seriously though, to paraphrase a bit more from Ms. Schwarzbaum, if you see only one comic love story from Kazakhstan this year, make it Tulpan. [05/27/09]