‘Tulpan,’ winner of the 2008 Cannes Film Festival ‘Un Certain Regard’ category
June 12, 2009. Chicago Tribune
By Michael Phillips (Tribune critic)
Asa, the young man at the heart of a one-of-a-kind film called “Tulpan,” yearns for the old romantic cliche: a sweetheart, a patch of land and a little bungalow for two.
With a few modifications, that is. Just out of the Russian navy, the jug-eared sailor has yet to lay eyes on his intended, the woman of the title and apparently one of the few specimens within several hundred miles. The land Asa loves is astonishingly desolate, a vast, blintz-flat region known as the Hunger Steppe of southern Kazakhstan. And the bungalow is a yurt, domicile of the eternal nomad.
“Tulpan” is the first narrative feature from director Sergey Dvortsevoy, whose documentary shorts “Highway” and “Paradise” were shown at Facets Cinematheque in 2000. His latest won the grand prize in last year’s Cannes Film Festival “Un Certain Regard” category. It is quite extraordinary, as well as resistant to nearly any peg you try to hang it on. Gently comic, ultimately stirring, the film relays the story of a family, and because the family’s livelihood involves tending sheep, the world Dvortsevoy chronicles pays loving attention to the lives of both humans and animals – interdependent residents in a difficult, memorable part of the world.
The filmmaker lets his story (co-written by Gennady Ostrovskiy) emerge from the landscape, which is wind-swept and forlorn but open to the occasional miracle. Asa (Askhat Kuchinchirekov) lives with his sister (Samal Yeslyamova), her husband (Ondasyn Besikbasov) and their three children on the edge of nowhere. Asa’s presence has begun to wear on his brother-in-law. Early on, the two men pay a visit to the parents of the woman Asa wants to marry but has not actually met. Chatting up his prospective in-laws, Asa tells them about the time, during his naval hitch, he was attacked by an octopus. This is his sole conversational gambit. It does not pay off. Despite Asa’s offer of 10 sheep and a rather pathetic chandelier, the unseen Tulpan declines his proposal.
There is a second visit to Tulpan and her parents. The entire film works in twos – an action and its reaction, or a scene and its bookend. The filmmaker’s documentary training pays off in detail after detail: the way the youngest child uses his pet turtle like a toy car, for example, or the appearance of the local veterinarian, who arrives via motorcycle with a bandaged camel riding sidecar.
Asa has no particular knack for the shepherd’s life at first: At one point he watches ineffectually as his brother-in-law becomes a midwife to a sheep. Then, in an unflinchingly graphic and altogether fantastic sequence, Asa must prove his mettle during another birthing. Nothing is faked or over-dramatized in this scene. When the camera (Jola Dylewska was the cinematographer) finally rests on Asa’s face, it’s a triumphant moment for both actor and character. Who needs special effects when life itself is the most extraordinary special effect imaginable?