Tulpan (2008)


Country:
Kazakhstan
Theme: Romance
Runtime: 100 minutes
Director: Sergey Dvortsevoy
Starring: Askhat Kuchinchirekov, Samal Yeslyamova, Ondasyn Besikbasov, Tulepbergen Baisakalov
Ratings: IMDB: 7.0/10 | Rotten Tomatoes: 95% | Metacritic: 88/100

Film Festivals:
Cannes Film Festival 2008, Prix Un Certain Regard

Awards:
2008 Asia Pacific Screen Award Best Film
2008 British Film Institute Award Sutherland Trophy for Best Director
2008 Cannes Film Festival Un Certain Regard Award
2008 Dubai International Film Festival Muhr Award Best Actor
2008 European Film Awards – European Discovery of the Year
2008 Montreal Festival of New Cinema – Feature Film Award
2008 Sao Paulo International Film Festival – International Jury Award
2008 Tokyo International Film Festival – Tokyo Grand Prix
2008 Zurich Film Festival – Golden Eye Award for Best Film

Nominated:

2008 Asia Pacific Screen Award Achievement in Directing
2009 Academy Awards: Kazakhstan submission for Foreign Language Film

Perhaps a throwback towards Kazakhstan’s communism and Soviet Union days, this film was also supported by the Polish Film Institute and the Russian Federal Agency of Culture and Cinema in a cross-border collaboration with foreign investments. This is also perhaps a sign of the fledgling film industry of the former Soviet Union nation, domesticated and thus reliant on overseas investment. But while the Central Asian bloc remains relatively unknown to much of the world with the Soviet only having been dissolved around two decades ago, the rich cultures that precede makes this region the up-and-coming one to watch over the next few years.


Tulpan
(2008) makes a bold declaration of intent for the country that was otherwise shamed in Sacha Baron Cohen’s Borat (2006). A pertinent point of note is that Director Sergey Dvortsevoy was an aviation engineer prior to studying film. Tulpan is his first fiction film, and Dvortsevoy successfully captures the barren, backward nature of the vast rural Kazakh plains through the movie, as well as the untowardly paternalistic nature of arranged marriages and an egoistic lead character who bears little regard for the fairer sex in this feature. Little wonder the Kazakh authorities have been quick to denounce this film as one worse than Borat in humiliating Kazakhstan. Could it be because of its glamorification of this primitive nature of Kazakhstan? Or is the inherent usage of patriotic innuendos like what seemingly is the Kazakh national anthem, featuring lines like Long live Kazakhstan (05:34) and Hold your head high, independent country! (18:40) viewed upon with disdain following the Kazakhstan greatest country in the world refrain of Borat? Political messages are also frequent via the news, as per the “Kazakhstan 2030” programme that we learn about through dialetic noise through the radio receiver as the educated child listens in to further update his father. “We learn that an earthquake in Japan measuring 7.0 on the Richter scale” constitutes big news to the radio broadcaster.

But the critics love it, a film where hopes, dreams and desires linger below the dusty plains of Tulpan. Frequent long shots expound the stark emptiness of the Kazakh rural farmland, and such frames of the harsh yet beautiful backdrop pepper the film, capturing the pristine untouched nature of the Kazakh desert (07:13, 08:24, 26:04), in contrast to close-ups of animal herding (12:20).Emptiness takes the place of the city, and animals the place of humans.

Further, a single long-take between 04:29 to 06:34 where the lead protagonist Asa and his Western culture-loving friend Boni drive through the Kazakh desert listening to pop songs. Boni wear the heart of civilization and future on his sleeves, frequently reiterating his wish to migrate to civilization and the city, with references to the American Dream pertinent as well. He is obsessed with pornography (a trait seemingly associated with materialism). But Asa insists on tying the knot in the village, not needing the city (26:18). The desires of Tulpan’s characters, in the words of Goldsmith (2008), become “almost metaphysical imperatives”.
Through the mise-en-scene, we learn that the Kazakhs look a lot like Asians, with their lush black hair and tanned skin, through several still medium shots that focus on the features of these characters. We learn that they favor lush colors that stand in stark contrast to the barren drabness that exist outside the tent. We learn that the lead protagonist, who has been discharged from the Russian navy, is eager to please with his past experiences escaping from sharks and octopi. We see all of them decked in ethnic costumes. All this, in the establishing scene which sets the premise of the film.

Dvortsevoy uses a handheld camera, as evident from the relatively shaky camera shots within the confined space of the tent that pan from character to character, capturing their emotions as they sit around the fire. This whole scene was conducted in one single take until it suddenly cuts away to Asa again (03:40) after the camera lands on the prospective bride Tulpan (03:34-03:39), hidden behind a veil. This creates a sense of discontinuity that perpetrates through the unwillingness of Tulpan to accept him as her husband. We learn later that its because of his huge ears. Further, the 5-second lingering shot of Tulpan creates an impression of us looking in as she eyes Asa.

But Tulpan refuses Asa, who is insistent on winning her hand no matter what – despite not having seen her before [Could a parallel be drawn with Il Mare, where the girl becomes the male’s “dream” despite him not having set sights on her? Is this an over-idealistic picture of love?] At 38:30, a shaky camera tracks his movement as he walks toward Tulpan’s hut and knocks on the door. Dvortsevoy follows through closely, culminating in a peeping motion that follows the plane of his sight of Asa (39:24). She refuses to speak to him and her mother chases him away.

Running parallel to this love story is a separate thread focusing on the importance of lifestock in the rural area. There is an epidemic amongst the sheep, with many mothers dying during birth or giving birth to stillborns. We see many dying lambs, and an initial scene of Asa trying his best to revive a dead lamb a possible parallel to the dead relationship between himself and Tulpan (56:04).

He succeeds in delivering a life lamb eventually as Dvortsevoy captures the entire birth process in a single long take (1:13:14 onwards). The camera zooms in and captures the entire process, culminating in a voyeuristic shot that panders lovingly on the lamb and its baby struggling to its feet. Having proven himself, Asa lies down in exhaustion, spreading his arms out, grinning in a sign of power and victory. We see this as a turning point for the character, who opts to stay in the village for a life of hardship and simplicity in the end rather than move to the city, despite not winning over the elusive Tulpan.

References
Goldsmith, L. (2008). Reverse Shot. Retrieved Oct 6, 2010, from http://www.reverseshot.com/article/tulpan

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