It is difficult to deftly meld nonfiction and fiction film by shooting scripted narratives in documentary style. Robert Flaherty invented and perfected that hybrid, and a number of his proteges in Western Europe successfully carried the torch. Kazakhstani director Sergey Dvortsevoy's Tulpan commendably strives for the same goals, and the very best one can...read more
It is difficult to deftly meld nonfiction and fiction film by shooting scripted narratives in documentary style. Robert Flaherty invented and perfected that hybrid, and a number of his proteges in Western Europe successfully carried the torch. Kazakhstani director Sergey Dvortsevoy's Tulpan commendably strives for the same goals, and the very best one can say about it is that on some crude, unsophisticated level, Dvortsevoy does establish an onscreen atmosphere of complete realism. But as a drama, the picture fails to satisfy.
The tale concerns Asa (Askhat Kuchinchirekov), a twentysomething naval veteran living in the plains of Kazakhstan, buckling beneath the weight of a dim future. An absence of eligible girls in the area means that it will be difficult for him to marry. And unless he snags a wife, his father tells him, he will be unable to fulfill his modest aspiration of acquiring a yurt (an indigenous tent covered in sheepskin) and tending a flock of sheep in the nearby countryside beneath a blanket of stars. As the tale opens, Asa sits huddled in a circle with the parents of a prospective bride, Tulpan, and unsuccessfully attempts to impress them by pouring out one high-flown naval story after another, capped off with tales of wrestling octopi. Meanwhile, the eccentric, gun-shy Tulpan hides behind a curtain and refuses to show herself to anyone; she has informed her parents that she dislikes Asa for his ugly, protruding ears, and adamantly refuses to wed him.
This alone constitutes a fascinating setup, and whenever Dvortsevoy returns to it in the framework of the narrative, he successfully sustains audience interest, particularly in a wonderful sequence where the insistent Asa corners Tulpan outside of a tent and speaks softly and poetically to her about his dreams of shepherding. Unfortunately, that narrative thread occupies an inadequate amount of screen time. Instead, we get countless group scenes of Asa's family inhabiting their yurt and engaging in endless banal conversation. Dvortsevoy's approach to realism involves plunging the audience into complete pandemonium, with noisy ensemble scenes where children prattle on so endlessly and noisily that we can barely hear ourselves think (the irritating daughter belts out a Kazakhstani song in a broken, off-key voice for much of the film) and the perpetually hostile father, Ondas (Ondasyn Besikbasov), screams at them to shut up. The director supplements this with interminable scenes of shepherding on the local plains, rescued very occasionally by a fascinating detail, such as an amazing scene where Ondas attempts to resuscitate a stillborn sheep by giving it mouth-to-mouth.
The picture improves substantially and hooks the audience about three-quarters of the way through, with a defining sequence that finds Asa stranded in the middle of the desert with a pregnant sheep in desperate need of medical attention -- giving the young man a chance to prove his shepherding skills to his parents once and for all. But this arrives much too late in the film to completely rescue it from its lack of narrative momentum. Moreover, much of the low-key, subtle humor feels both contrived and forced. Above all else, if material such as this works, it desperately needs to achieve and sustain a level of quiet aesthetic lyricism -- a goal that completely eludes Dvortsevoy, no matter how naturally breathtaking those plains of Kazakhstan may be.
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