‘Tulpan’ a journey of heart

By James Verniere

Boston Herald

Friday, May 15, 2009

Flaherty’s landmark “Nanook of the North”A welcome respite from the stampede of tech-heavy, summer-movie behemoths, Cannes 2008 award-winner “Tulpan” transports us to the wide-open spaces of Kazakhstan. There, tribesmen herd sheep on the wind-swept Hunger Steppe under a swirling expanse of sky and spend their nights huddled in family yurts.

“Tulpan,” the work of meticulous Kazakhstan ethno-documentarian Sergei Dvortsevoy (“Highway”), is a throwback to Robert J. Flaherty’s landmark “Nanook of the North” (1922).

A neo-realist, semi-documentary, “Tulpan” tells the story of a Kazakhstan family, its wide array of sheep, donkeys and domestic pets and a girlie-mag-loving driver whose tractor is a tow-truck-cum-general-store that blasts Boney M.’s “‘Rivers of Babylon” every time he starts it up.

Asa (Askhat Kuchencherekov) is a sailor living with the family of his beautiful sister Samal (Samal Esljamova) to the dismay of his sister’s gruff, sheepherder husband, Ondas (Ondas Besikbasov). Ondas already has his hands full with his two sons. One listens to the family’s battery-operated radio by day and repeats the news from memory at night, while the other, a mischievous child, gallops about on a stick he pretends is a horse. Ondas and Samal also have a tweener daughter, who broadcasts her rebelliousness in constant, grating song.

Ondas has a more serious problem: Lambs are being born dead, and he is waiting to consult the area veterinarian.

Asa’s greatest shortfall is that he has “no wife and no flock.” Therefore, when the action begins, he, Ondas and the driver visit an old couple, whose daughter, the barely glimpsed eponymous Tulpan, Asa wants to marry. She refuses, claiming that among other things, the young suitor’s ears are too big.

“Tulpan” is not going to compete with “Wolverine” for the attention of area moviegoers. But in one scene, as one of the family’s dogs dines contentedly on a baby lamb carcass, one is reminded of the difference between life and comic books.

Later, we meet the vet, a real character with a Russian cigarette clamped between his teeth. He’s followed closely by a barking camel that has been chasing him for hundreds of miles because he has its offspring in his motorcycle’s sidecar.

At such moments, “Tulpan” is a rare delight (Let me also recommend the magical 2003 Mongolian effort “The Story of the Weeping Camel”). Let “Tulpan” take you on its journey.