On the steppes of Kazhakstan, a young Rassian sailor, Asa (Askhat Kuchencherekov), returns to his village to secure his future - a flock of sheep to tend for a boss. To do this, he needs a wife; the girl of his dreams, Tulpan, is the only option in the entire region. For now, he shares a yurt (a tent house made of skins) with his beautiful older sister Samal (Samal Yeslyamova), brother-in-law Ondas (Ondasyn Besikbasov) and their four rambunctious children. But when he calls on Tulpan's family and offers marriage, Tulpan, hoping to leave the steppe and go to college, tells her parents to refuse him, claiming it's because his ears are too big. Asa now has to somehow make do ...
Review by Louise Keller:
With its great sense of place, this slice of life from Kazakhstan fills our lungs with its dust, our ears with the braying of the sheep and our hearts with the dreams of its protagonist. Director Sergey Dvortsevoy's acclaimed film feels like a documentary as we enter the household of which Asa (Askhat Kuchinchirekov) becomes a part after he leaves the navy and aspires to a shepherd's life. The sticky point is that without a wife, Asa has no chance of getting a flock; he is pointedly told he must have someone to wash and cook for him, or he will not survive. We become privy to the harshness of everyday life on the steppe, as a child sings, a woman churns milk and a man aspires to save a newborn lamb.
Life in the desolate desert is tough. Asa's sister and her family live in a brown, mushroom-like hut in the middle of nowhere. The flat barren land extends as far as the eye can see. The film's soundscape comprises the sounds of the local animals: the goats, sheep, cattle, camels, donkeys and birds. A little boy constantly squeals as he rides his imaginary horse, a stick that he places between his legs, complete with rope reins. His sister spends all her waking hours singing. It is in tune. His older brother carries a portable radio on his shoulder, breaking world news as it happens. Their father demands some etiquette at meal time, as they sit on the ground in their primitive hut.
The central story strand involving Asa and his would-be wife Tulpan is both comical and poignant. She is but an illusion who peers at him from behind a curtain and despite the offer of 10 sheep and a chandelier as a suggested dowry, he is rejected on the grounds of having big ears. His ears become a focus and there's an amusing scene in which these extremities are compared to another pair that belong to a world famous prince, yet the characters have no idea who he is. The most extraordinary moment comes in the birthing scene of a lamb: we watch in amazement as it takes its first breath and bonds with its mother. The hand held camera work is in keeping with Dvortsevoy's vision and gives it a sense of spontaneity. Although the shaking and the child's constant squealing is also a source of irritation.
Review by Andrew L. Urban:
The story has the makings of a romantic comedy, but it veers off into something else. Imagine the situation: the barren Kazhak steppe is your traditional home, where shepherds make a meagre living tending flocks - usually for other, slightly richer people. To get a flock to look after, the boss demands you have a wife, for the simple reason that you cannot survive without such domestic support as a wife provides. It's very pragmatic. So when Asa, the mournful-faced Askhat Kuchencherekov, comes home from military service in the navy, he looks up the girl next door. She's the only girl near by (and it's not so near, either) and she's not interested in him. Or anyone else. She wants out, just as much as he wants in. He's happy on the steppe; she wants a future in the city. This clash is echoed elsewhere in the story, with varying degrees of intensity. The initial set up of boy meets girl is thus translated into a culture we hardly recognise. But we soon learn.
The second act would normally have the boy chase the reluctant girl - which he does, but to no avail. Worse, her mother gets in on the act, at one stage threatening him with a shovel.
All the while Asa shares the yurt with his sister's family. Good grief their kids are loud! All crammed into one space the size of an average living room, and Asa's brother in law is a sour fart who resents his presence.
The film takes us deep into Kazhak country, including a real time scene in which Asa finds himself the impromptu midwife to a sheep in the middle of nowhere. The local vet turns up to take away a young camel whose mother brays and hovers threateningly. Sudden whirligigs lift the surface dust and reduce visibility to zero while raising the decibels.
Highly acclaimed at festivals, Tulpan is wondrous and fascinating, with a gritty, true-to-hard-life tone. It's not a comedy but there are humorous moments; it's not a romance but there are romantic touches; it's not a drama but there are dramatic elements. It's unique and memorably exotic, and it does illuminate the human condition. But don't let the accolades raise your expectations too high or you may be let down.
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CAST: Tolepbergen Baisakalov, Ondasyn Besikbasov, Samal Esljamova, Askhat Kuchencherekov, Bereke Turganbayev
PRODUCER: Karl Baumgartner, Thanassis Karathanos
DIRECTOR: Sergei Dvortsevoy
SCRIPT: Sergei Dvortsevoy, Gennado Ostrovski
CINEMATOGRAPHER: Jolanta Dylewska
EDITOR: Petar Markovic, Isabel Meier
PRODUCTION DESIGN: Roger Martin
RUNNING TIME: 100 minutes
AUSTRALIAN DISTRIBUTOR: Palace
AUSTRALIAN RELEASE: April 23, 2009