Friday, April 3, 2009


As a portrait of a singular landscape Tulpan is illuminating. As narrative, it's warmly engaging. As a work of cinema combining the two modes, it's inspired. Set amid the alien (at least for Western viewers) terrain of the Kazakh steppes, Sergey Dvortsevoy's feature debut would play as something like a dispatch from another world, if it weren't so grounded in the recognizable particularities of human experience. Affixing a sketch-like narrative to a documentary foundation, the filmmaker deftly integrates the story of a family of herders into a precisely recorded detailing of the surrounding land, heightening the meaning of his distinctive setting by making the individual circumstances of the characters' lives inextricable from the specific features of their environment.

And some environment: dusty flatlands extending to infinity, camels and sheep roaming free over the cracked terrain, the whole thing brought to life as much by the film's layered sound design as by Jolanta Dylewska's vivid cinematography. The varied eruptions of the animals and the constant rush of the wind make up the perpetual sounds of the steppe - jacked up in the mix to near assaultive levels - and form a fit audio counterpart to the dust and thunder storms and sheer sense of expanse that render the landscape so spectacularly forbidding. When, late in the film, Dylewska's camera pans left, moving to a long shot of a single camel traversing a near empty terrain, the environment emerges fully - a beautiful void - the grunting animal (along with a single yurt) the only visible presence as the surrounding land rolls back to the horizon.

But of course it isn't a complete void because people live and work and strive here. Focusing on Asa (Askhat Kuchinchirekov), a young man returned from the Russian navy who lives with his sister's family, the narrative turns on his semi-comic efforts to secure a wife (a first step toward a longed-for economic self-sufficiency) as well as his more serious conflicts with his brother-in-law. Arranging a meeting with the parents of the only available young woman in the area (the titular Tulpan), Asa regales his would-be in-laws with enthusiastic tales about warding off octopuses, while the prospective bride watches unseen through a curtain. Finally rejected by Tulpan because his ears are too big, he returns for a second meeting armed with a picture of Prince Charles, a man whose even larger auditory organs have not prevented his own worldly and romantic success. These scenes are funny, but never at the expense of the characters; Dvortsevoy is careful to avoid taking a superior stance to his subjects, making good use of Kuchinchirekov's low-key charm and his character's sudden bits of garrulousness to ensure that the sequence plays out according to a warm, humanist orientation.

Unfolding in episodic fashion, Asa's story pauses to take in the details of family life: a young boy's recitation of the daily newscasts he picks up on the radio, his sister's constant singing, the difficulties of herding sheep. In Tulpan the narrative and non-narrative elements always serve to enhance one another, the plight of the characters gaining its meaning from Dvortsevoy's careful detailing of the environment with which they have to contend. So that when we finally get to the film's centerpiece - the famed single-take rendering of a live sheep birth - the scene may be remarkable in its own right as an act of documentary filmmaking, but it takes on added power from its placement within the narrative. In the midst of a blight that causes the central family's flock to give birth to stillborn offspring, Asa decides to leave the yurt and strike out on his own. Coming across the birthing ewe, he pauses and helps deliver a healthy lamb, breathing life into the little thing with an urgent bit of mouth-to-mouth, not only signaling the potential end to the pox, but suggesting for Asa a hard compromise with the lifestyle that represents his cultural inheritance but for which he had shown little aptitude. As he collapses in exhaustion on the ground, arms spread out cross-like, he's accomplished something of value for the first time since his return to his family. An uncertain future may await, his dreams may remain deferred, but in the world of the Kazakh steppes, the world whose vivid evocation stands chief among Dvortsevoy's triumphs, this counts as no small achievement.

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