Wednesday, December 16, 2009
Review – Tulpan
December 16, 2009
Tulpan – Kazakhstan, 2008
In high school, a young lady once turned me down because I didn’t have a car. To soften the blow, she added that this was her father’s requirement, not her own. I cannot say for sure whether this was indeed true, but I have a feeling that if she had been a little more honest with me, she would have said this simple sentence, “You’re just not what I’m looking for.” Without that straightforward explanation, scenarios immediately began dancing in my head – I could get a license soon; I would then get a car; we would then go on our first date. And therein lay the problem. From my perspective, her answer had left the door slightly ajar; in her mind, it had shut it completely. So when a young man in Sergei Dvortsevoy’s 2008 film Tulpan learns that his proposal of marriage has been rejected because his intended bride, Tulpan, objects to the size of his ears, I could recognize the initial look of despair and resignation on his face, followed by the sudden mistaken realization that he has not been completely rejected and that if he can just fix the small insignificant part of him that she objects to, they will soon be happily married. To him, there is still hope.
The young man at the heart of Tulpan is Asa (Askhat Kuchencherekev). Asa has recently returned to the outer-lying areas of Kazakhstan after completing his military service. Upon his return, he has set two goals for himself: find a wife and be a success. He has visions of a life filled with solar-powered roofs, modern technology, reliable water supplies, and arable land. The life he envisions for himself is in stark contrast to his sister’s. She lives with her family in a makeshift hut in the middle of nowhere, relies on others to transport water and food to her, and uses candles and kerosene lamps for light. One of the only signs of technology is a small portable radio that runs on batteries. It’s a rough life, and it’s not hard to see why someone like Asa would like to make some improvements to it. However, to do so – if that indeed is even possible - he needs the local Communist leader to give him his own flock of sheep, but in order to get the flock of sheep, he is told, he needs to get married - and the only eligible young woman for miles has just rejected him due to the size of his ears. What’s a person to do but keep trying in the vain hope that she will eventually change her mind?
Given this plot, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that Tulpan is about more than just a love-struck young man pursuing the girl of his dreams. In fact, much of the film is devoted to Asa’s relationship with his sister Samal (Samal Esljamova) and her family. For reasons unexplained, Asa’s husband Ondas (Ondas Besikbasov) seems to dislike Asa, even going so far as to ignore him completely at times. To be fair though, as a sheepherder, it can’t be easy for Ondas to suddenly drop what he’s doing and act as a go-between been Asa and his prospective parents-in-law, especially when newborn sheep are dying right and left. Naturally, Ondas feels that he is needed elsewhere, and you can see his impatience during his negotiations with Tulpan’s parents.
One of the delights of Tulpan is Samal and Ondas’ children, for in addition to being very realistic, they are simply a joy to watch. The youngest is Nuka. He is constantly galloping around on a stick and seems to rejoice in having such open space to run around in. Then there’s the middle child Beke (Bereke Turganbayev). One of his responsibilities is to listen to Kazakhstani radio, memorize what he hears, and then recite the news to his father later that night. He even rushes out to inform his father when there is breaking news. His ability to memorize entire news broadcasts is impressive. The oldest child is Maha, and she is blessed with an amazingly powerful singing voice. If only her father didn’t get so upset when she sings during dinner. Another interesting thing about Tulpan is how noisy it is. This is due not to special effects but rather to the environment the film takes place in. There, flocks of sheep race by loudly, strong winds send dust flying everywhere, small twisters form, and lightening lights the night sky. In addition, Maha belts out traditional songs, Asa’s friend Boni (Tolepbergen Baisakalov) blasts Boney M’s “Rivers of Babylon” from his transport vehicle, and Asa and Ondas have loud heated exchanges. So much for the peace and tranquility of the countryside.
Not everything in Tulpan works as well as it should. Dvortsevoy occasionally devotes too much time to shots of nature that are not essential to the story, and the film’s climax is set in motion a bit too far in advance for it to come as a surprise. That the scene is still very powerful is a testament to the film’s director and writers. I also liked the way the film works against expectations. We think the film is going to be about Asa’s attempts to woo Tulpan, yet Tulpan barely appears in the film, and when she does, we never get a clear view of her.
Tulpan is not a conventional love story. It is not a story of “boy chasing girl.” Instead, it is a film about a family struggling to make a living doing something that many others are shunning. It is about understanding exactly what embracing that way of life entails – hard work, terrible working conditions, not having a permanent home, forsaking modern conveniences – and doing it anyway. It is this life that people like Tulpan have decided is not for them. The ears are just a metaphor. (on DVD)
3 and a half stars
*Tulpan is in Kazakh and Russian with English subtitles.
*My thanks to Roger Ebert for bringing this film to my attention.