A few years ago, Sacha Baron Cohen single-handedly engrained the nation of Kazakhstan in the minds of moviegoers as a backward Eastern European hovel forgotten by the progress of time. It might not be the intention of Tulpan to challenge that stereotype (so preposterously inaccurate as to parody such stereotypes), but the film’s careful attention to the abrasive and absurd details of life on the lonely expanses of the Hunger Steppe of southern Kazakhstan deepens an understanding, in its modest arthouse way, of this overlooked part of the world on the outer fringes of globalism.
As the debut fiction feature from documentary filmmaker Sergey Dvortsevoy, Tulpan displays a veritist’s eye for spontaneous interactions between character and environment, here constructed around a story about former marine Asa (Askhat Kuchinchirekov) returning to the Steppe where his sister Samal (Samal Yeslyamova) and her stern husband Ondas (Ondasyn Besikbasov) herd sheep. Asa’s attempt to establish independence by wooing the daughter of a neighboring family — in rural custom, the potential bride remains unseen — turns into a series of tragic-comic disasters, the best bits featuring the uniformed man exaggeratedly boasting of octopus battles on the high seas.
In this vein Dvortsevoy continually finds uncontrived ways of balancing the lonesome existence of the desert terrain and its merciless dust and lightning storms with gently orchestrated slapstick (a maternal camel trailing its bandaged, veterinary-bound offspring) and quasi-improvised downtime (Ondas’ tent home as playground for an angelic-voiced daughter, radio reporting son and shrieking infant). And like the landscape itself, Tulpan unfolds so naturally in beautifully executed long takes that Asa’s eventual acceptance of the Steppe — symbolized by the film’s centerpiece, his fumbling solo delivery of a lamb — achieves an understated, ambiguous resignation.