The most striking feature of Sergey Dvortsevoy’s Tulpan is the landscape. The film, a comedy-drama set in the Kazakh steppe, is filled with shots of unbroken horizons that stretch for miles on end as well as skies that are seemingly as big as the world can offer; there are no roads, no trees and no bushes as far as the eye can see, and even the great modern explorers McDonalds and Starbucks haven’t yet made it this far, though somewhat inevitably that’s about to change.
It is to this harsh, remote environment that Asa (Askhat Kuchinchirekov) has returned, following a stint with the Russian Navy, to live in a yurt with his sister Samal (Samal Yeslyamova), her older husband Ondas (Ondas Besikbasov) and their three children. Ondas is a tough, resourceful herdsman, and the family lives a nomadic lifestyle, occasionally moving across the plain when the weather becomes inhospitable or if new arable land is required. Understandably there’s hardly anyone attempting to exist out here, and the few who remain bemoan the lure of cities, which have proven to be irresistible for many younger family members. Population density is so low, in fact, that Ondas and Samal’s nearest neighbours are around a day’s travel away. They are an older couple whose beautiful daughter Tulpan is desired by Asa, who wishes to establish his own herd and home before marrying her. Unfortunately Tulpan, who is only briefly glimpsed on screen, isn’t keen on Asa at all: she believes he has big ears and finds him unattractive. The problem for Asa is that Tulpan is the only single woman in the region.
Beyond this there’s not a great deal to the story and instead the film, with an unhurried pace, focuses on examining the herdsman way of life. Water is obviously important, as is the health of the sheep and goats that Ondas looks after, and a mystery illness appears to be responsible for the stillborn deaths of his lambs. This actually becomes quite an involving storyline: it is clear just how important these animals are to the family’s survival, and the scenes in which the herdsmen attempt mouth-to-mouth resuscitation with the dying or already dead creatures are moving. The significance of the animals is never underplayed: Tulpan includes a scene near the end that shows a sheep giving birth successfully — this film’s equivalent of a ‘set piece’ — which is perhaps the catalyst for a change in the lazy, disconsolate Asa’s attitude, as well as the glimmer of hope required by the stressed-out Ondas.
Gradually it becomes clear that Tulpan isn’t really about the wooing of a woman. It’s about tradition, family loyalty, the spread of consumerism and the death of the nomadic lifestyle in the modern world. Asa desires a TV just as much as he desires Tulpan, and the real issue here is whether he will stay with his sister and her family and work for what he wants, as opposed to merely dreaming about it. As someone who has travelled he has seen the world beyond the steppe, and understandably wants to see more of it, but his desire to leave conflicts with a sense of duty to his family. The suggestion is that Asa has returned home in a ‘contaminated’ state, which is thematically linked to the disease spreading through the flock of sheep; both are ‘diagnosed’ and apparently ‘cured’ at the same time.
There’s a comic tone running through the film which translates well from Kazakhstani culture to English. Asa’s best friend, a travelling cucumber salesman named Boni (Tolepbergen Baisakalov), drives a souped-up tractor and his repeated joyous, upbeat singalongs to Boney M’s Rivers Of Babylon offer some light relief from the scenes of dying animals. The well-meaning Boni attempts to convince Tulpan’s parents that Asa will make a good husband, and sources a picture of Prince Charles in order to compare Asa’s ears to those of a high-ranking foreign dignitary. ‘Is he African?’ asks Tulpan’s stubborn mother, amusingly, indicating her incubation from the wider world. ‘No,’ replies Boni. ‘He’s American’.
Dvortsevoy forced his cast to live together for a month in a yurt before filming commenced, and it looks as if the experiment worked, as the actors seem believable to these foreign eyes and ears, and they are at ease in their surroundings. Unfortunately despite moderate success on the international festival circuit the Kazakhstan government criticised Tulpan, with officials suggesting the filmmaker had created a ‘backward’ portrayal of their country that was even more degrading than Sacha Baron Cohen’s Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan. All I can say to that is they clearly haven’t watched Borat recently. While Tulpan is concerned to an extent with the rejection of modern culture and development generally – i.e. not just the usual target of ‘western’ culture – the characters here aren’t depicted as simpletons, although the young men here do suffer from a degree of immaturity which is milked for laughs. In fact the harsh environment, which creates problems such as dust storms, un-cooperative camels, droughts and perishing livestock, makes it obvious to the outside observer that a sustained focus must be kept on survival, and there’s little need for the wider world of TV, Prince Charles, Boney M and the trappings of city life.
Directed by: Sergey Dvortsevoy
Written by: Sergey Dvortsevoy, Gennady Ostrovskiy
Starring: Askhat Kuchinchirekov, Samal Yeslyamova, Tolepbergen Baisakalov, Ondas Besikbasov
Running Time: 100 minutes