Humor, drama, and despair amid endless horizons
In the tradition of ethnographic dramas from "Nanook of the North" to "The Fast Runner," "Tulpan" drops us in the middle of a godforsaken nowhere and marvels at the people who live there. This particular nowhere is the Hunger Steppe in southern Kazakhstan, a terrain awe-inspiring in its vastness and lack of defining features. The place feels like Earth 1.0, a blank drawing board - all that's there is wind, immense dust funnels, and the distant curve of the planet itself.
In the middle of this void is a yurt, and in the yurt lives a family of shepherds. Sergei Dvortsevoy's remarkable film - a prizewinner at Cannes last year and Kazakhstan's official Oscar submission - is fiction, but the characters are played by people more or less playing themselves, and each actor brings a rough charisma to the film. The central figure is Asa (Askhat Kuchinchirekov): young and recently returned from a sailor's life in the Pacific, he has moved in with his sister, Samal (Samal Yeslyamova, the film's secret star), her gruff husband, Ondas (Ondasyn Besikbasov), and their three children.
The gangly Asa is a throwback and a romantic; where his best friend, Boni (Tulepbergen Baisakalov), dreams of life in the big city and large-breasted supermodels, he only wants to settle into the old ways. Unfortunately, Asa can't get a herd and a land claim without a bride, and the only eligible woman for miles around - the unseen Tulpan, hiding behind her parents' curtains - has rejected him for the size of his ears. Boni produces a photo of Prince Charles to prove that even royalty can have big flappers, but to no avail.
"Tulpan" (it means "tulip") follows this plotline at a trotting remove; the movie's more interested in Asa's growing despair amid the astonishing beauty of the landscape. Jola Dyleska's stark, color-saturated hand-held camerawork captures both the alien majesty of the steppes and the warmth and resourcefulness of its inhabitants. The animals are as much characters as the people; one very funny sequence involves a stroppy mother camel following the veterinarian's cart holding her wounded child for kilometer after kilometer.
The more primal drama though, is between the herders' lives and the 21st century looming just out of frame. That tension pops up between Boni, with his reggae tapes and porn magazines, and the willfully innocent Asa. It's there in the squabbles between two of Ondas's kids, a boy who never stops listening to world news on the radio and a girl who never stops singing ancient, defiant folk songs. It's most present in their mother's face, a subtle map of serenity and regret. The old ways are disappearing; even Tulpan wants to go to college. Why stick around when the lambs are dying?
"Tulpan" answers by showing us the eternal.