Tulpan (Sergei Dvortsevoy, 2008)
Set in the steppes of Kazakhstan, Sergei Dvortsevoy's Tulpan details the efforts of Asa (Askat Kuchinchirekov), a young man who is relieved from his navy duty and is now living with his sister and her husband, to find a wife, and in turn, earn his flock of sheep and be a step closer to his dreams (as drawn under his navy uniform's collar; a tradition done among sailors, we are told). However, Tulpan, the only girl available for marriage within miles, does not like Asa, despite his tall tales of wrestling with octopuses and his gift of an ornament bought from one of his travels. Persistent in convincing Tulpan to marry him so that they can start their dreams, he ventures the distance to the girl's home, only to be rebuked over and over again by his most elusive prize. Asa's story however seems secondary to the palpable world the film depicts with verity usually reserved for documentaries.
The world of Tulpan is all dust and dull, that the navy blue of Asa's uniform becomes alien. Parading through the desert in a rundown tractor with a cover of The Rivers of Babylon playing in the background, Dvortsevoy's camera starts off with Asa, jubilant after what he thinks is a successful attempt to woo Tulpan. The camera slowly and painfully shifts its attention to survey the area, inflicting the irony of the reggae song that serves as soundtrack to this particular visual (the song was first used in Perry Henzell's The Harder They Come (1972), set in ocean-bound Jamaica, as opposed to the Tulpan's dry deserts). The endless sun-baked light brown of the film's setting becomes more suffocating especially when the news that Asa is to remains bride-less as Tulpan, whose only interaction with Asa is a shared short glance, according to her stern parents, does not fancy him (she thinks his ears are too big), is told with immense frustration by Ondas (Ondas Besikbasov), Asa's brother-in-law. The island music stops. The smiles are erased. Reality sinks in. There are no more prospects for Asa within miles of desolation.
Perhaps the most interesting thing Dvortsevoy commits in Tulpan is distance, that kilometers of utter nothingness separates people from each other, how it is very real and as a result, forces people to be alienated, how people actually adapt despite how debilitating it is, how it becomes both a struggle and a relief. As Dvortsevoy visualizes the hazards of the film's environs (inevitable dust storms; a tornado in the middle of the desert) and the creatures (a horde of marching camels; a flock of frazzled sheep; a mother camel chasing the veterinarian on his motorbike with an injured baby camel on the sidecar) thriving against the inhospitable terrain, the human element becomes a very pressing concern, and the few instances, mere gestures if taken within the grand portrait of desert life that Dvortsevoy paints, where he allows his characters to feel and live with the vast distance from everywhere else are priceless moments in cinema: scattered candies on the ground are picked up one by one as if they were gold; news on the government's program is heard only from the transistor radio by Ondas' son, and re-broadcasted to the family over dinner; a veterinarian takes days to check on the sheep whose young are born dead.
Dvortsevoy has a knack for ironic humor: The Rivers of Babylon as soundtrack to the desert; the pet turtle in the arid landscape; and the countless pictures of naked women in various compromising positions inside the tractor of Boni (Tulepbergen Baisakalov) in a region where women are scarce; the government's plans of being economically sound by 2020 when as of present, a portion of their population only has access to them through broken radio signals. The humor enunciates the verve against the humdrum proceedings, the subtle indications of governmental daydreaming against the overpowering effect of nature to these nomadic people, the lingering need for a woman's affection against the barrenness of everything else. More than the humor are the pervading themes that are fleshed out from the tender moments that are told under the backdrop of the sprawling landscape. Notwithstanding the immense distance that separates the characters from everywhere else, the often banal and seldom dramatic aspects of these people's lives are depicted with an immediacy and intimacy that is quite affecting. In the film's decisive moment, where Asa, after giving up on his dreams to have his own herd of sheep, walks alone in the desert and finds a sheep struggling to give birth to its baby, Dvortsevoy finally unites his stubborn depiction of the dormant dominance of nature and the story-driven plight of Asa.
The film seamlessly marries elements that seem contradictory: alienation and affection; ambition and actuality; the infiniteness of nature and the finiteness of men; reality and fiction; and documentary and drama. As a result, Tulpan is a grandiose document of these persisting ironies resulting from humanity's continuous relationship with the earth, told in simple yet effective strokes but enough to fill a canvass as expansive as the desert.