National Cinema

Films from Along the Silk Road: Central Asian Cinema (2003)

The Apple, 2003 (Abay Kulbaev, Kazakhstan). The Apple is a charming and playfully ironic short film on a man (played by filmmaker Darezhan Omirbaev) casually picking berries on a hill who becomes drawn to the amusing sight of a young boy attempting to reach an apple that is tantalizingly just out of his reach.

killerKiller, 1998 (Darezhan Omirbaev, Kazakhstan). Killer is a visually distilled, acutely observed, and socially relevant film on moral erosion, marginalization, urban disconnection, and despair. Inviting vague comparisons to Robert Bresson’s L’Argent in the spare and naturalistic depiction of spiritual corruption in an increasingly inhumane, callous, and materialistic society, the film centers on a young married man and doting new father named Marat, the personal driver of a genial and highly respected mathematics professor and university director in the large, impersonal city of Almaty. As the film opens, the professor arrives at the studio of a radio station for a recorded interview on the uncertain state of scientific research and the academic community after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The episode proves to be an applicable reflection of Marat’s tenuous financial circumstances as well when, having borrowed the car to drive his family home from the hospital, he attempts to catch a glimpse of his infant son while in transit and causes a traffic accident. Unable to pay for the repair of the two automobiles (in an obliquely violent encounter with the owner of the vehicle in Marat’s home that is Pirandellically depicted in Omirbaev’s subsequent film, The Road, a reflexive film on a filmmaker seeking creative inspiration to complete his film, Killer), Marat reluctantly borrows money from a loanshark, and consequently embarks on a dubious, inescapable alliance with the ruthless mobster. Tonally muted and understated, yet evocative and poetic, Killer is perhaps Omirbaev’s most accomplished work to date, a film that combines the intimacy and emotional honesty of Kairat and Kardiogram with the innately metaphoric personality of environment and natural landscape that pervade the sublime imagery of The Road.

The Mystery of Ferns, 1992 (Rachid Malikov, Uzbekistan). Fortunately, filmmaker Rachid Malikov was available for a post-screening Q&A of his film, The Mystery of Ferns, a narratively opaque, yet instinctually (and emotionally) resonant film on profound alienation, spiritual desolation, and obsolescence. The film follows the plight of a lonely widower, an elderly intellectual alternately ignored and patronized by his self-consumed daughter and immature granddaughter, who one day, loses his memory and begins to wander aimlessly through the impersonal, and often decaying landscape of modern-day Uzbekistan. Slightly reminiscent of the baroque elements in Raoul Ruiz’s stylistic characterizations (although Malikov’s formalized compositions are quite spare by comparison), the film’s challenging narrative approach lies in its oddly surreal (yet naturalistic) and psychologically impenetrable point-of-view that reflects the old man’s fragmented and pervasively detached perspective. What results is an inaccessible, yet innately compelling film.

The Last Stop (Terminus), 1987 (Serik Aprimov, Kazakhstan). In an early episode in The Last Stop, a young man, newly discharged from the Soviet army visits his relatives and inquires about what has happened in the bucolic town during his absence, to which his extended family responds “Nothing happens here. We live.” Considered to be the first perestroika film, The Last Stop consists of a series of reunions with family and friends as he spends an aimless day attempting to readjust to his former life and assessing his future in his rural hometown where poverty, unemployment, drunkenness, and interminable boredom are endemic to the villagers’ way of life. Aprimov’s use of languid pacing, spare, natural landscapes, and dialogistic (and occasionally amusing) encounters invites comparison to the films of Abbas Kiarostami, but his sense of cultural intimacy for village life and affectionate concern for the limited opportunities of its inhabitants are distinctively native.

flyupThe Fly-Up, 2002 (Marat Sarulu, Kyrgyzstan). Preceding Marat Sarulu’s feature film, My Brother Silk Road, is the filmmaker’s short film, The Fly-Up, a quiet observation of a factory furnace worker’s idyllic afternoon of rest as he attempts to escape the oppressiveness of his existence by taking a nap on the rooftop, watching a beautiful young neighbor as she paints her house, then traveling to the top of a mountain overlooking the town in order to fly his homemade paraglider. The Fly-Up is a simple and subtle, yet understatedly metaphoric film on imagination and transcendence.

The Watchman (The Guard), 1989 (Beyzhan Aidkuluev, Kyrgyzstan). Consisting of concentrated, visually striking, and evocative natural imagery, The Watchman is an indelible portrait of a robust, elderly, one-legged man as he traverses the austere, yet beautiful landscape of his quaint Kirghiz village. Slightly reminiscent of Aleksandr Sokurov’s impressionistic and elegiac tone poems (particularly Oriental Elegy, but with less opacity and more instinctual cohesion), the film is a haunting and sublime meditation on natural communion, transience, and cultural extinction.

silkroadMy Brother Silk Road, 2001 (Marat Sarulu, Kyrgyzstan/Kazakhstan). Incorporating two intersecting situational narratives, My Brother Silk Road is an exquisite, intelligently constructed, and richly textured snapshot of a transitional human experience. The film begins with a group of small children as they follow an older boy on a playful exploration through the vast forest of their remote agrarian mountain village. The older boy leads the children to the steppes where he reveals the romantic history of the train tracks as having been built on what had formerly been the silk road trade route. The story then shifts perspective to the occupants of a transnational train: a middle-aged train employee who once followed a lover aboard the train and has figuratively been unable to leave ever since; her daughter, a young woman who has decided to abandon school and join a group of aimless, Western pop culture-addicted bohemians; a struggling, pensive, and idealistic artist who offers quick sketch, pencil portraits to passengers for money. With equal measures of affectionate whimsy and social realism, the film is an acutely observed composition of people in emotional transition as they search for community, reconciliation, and transcendence.

The screening of My Brother Silk Road was followed by an extended Q&A session with filmmaker Marat Sarulu, where he explained that his preferred literal film title is The Golden Pheasant, a reference to a sophist tale of the titular birds that were once driven from paradise and would spend their lifetime attempting to return to it. Within this allegorical context, the characters in the film fall into three distinct phases: the innocence of the young children represent the birds residing in paradise; the train employees are the disillusioned birds searching for a way back (most notably in the train employee’s encounter with a former classmate – now a shepherd – who was once in love with her); the artist and the older boy are the birds in existential transition, having been literally and figuratively dislocated from paradise.

revengeRevenge, 1987 (Ermek Shinarbaev, Kazakhstan). A collaboration between famed Korean Kazakhstanian novelist, Anatoly Kim and filmmaker Ermek Shinarbaev (who was also on-hand to present the film and participate in a subsequent Q&A session), Revenge is a sumptuous and intricately structured epic tale on the contaminative, destructive, and overreaching consequences of revenge. Structured in thematically spiraling, narratively overlapping novellas, the film’s prologue follows the seemingly mythical story of a young prince who, overpowered by a peasant’s son, is mandated by the king to train in armed combat so that when he comes of age, he will become the most powerful warrior in the kingdom. Years later, the prince’s ability is tested in a series of challenges that, although emerging victorious, is tainted with the realization that an opponent had spared the prince and allowed him to win. Unable to obtain another competition against the more skillful rival, and unwilling to accept the compassionate advice of the court poet – the prince’s trusted friend and advisor – the prince orders the opponent to be beaten to death, an act that causes the poet to resign his post and leave the palace. The proceeding novella moves forward to the turn of the 20th century, as a school teacher, angered by the students’ lack of attention, directs his violent rage at a little girl and kills her. Years later, the girl’s half-brother, a sensitive and thoughtful young boy is entrusted with the responsibility of exacting revenge on the schoolmaster, and in the process, abandons his own artistic pursuit and desire to lead a normal life. Although the film’s complex and allegorical composition and atmospherically dense imagery create an indelible viewing experience, the lack of cohesion in several narrative threads (the underformed roles of the teacher’s wife and protector, the hero’s enlightened teacher and spiritual guide, the elderly woman) encumber the film with a sense of situational ambiguity and frustrating incompletion.

Acquarello, 2003 [reprinted]

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