This may seem out-of-the-ordinary but I’ve seen two films from Kazakhstan in the past week. Kazakh cinema is not uninteresting, having produced some noteworthy pics over the years, e.g. Schizo (2004)—which, entre autres, offered a searing portrait of a country and society ravaged by seven decades of Soviet communism—, Tulpan (2008)—I loved this movie, which made my Top 20 best-of list of the last decade—, and Songs from the Southern Seas (2009), to which one may add the 2007 grand spectacle Mongol, which was multinationally produced and acted, and perhaps also the wonderful 2008 Tengri: Blue Heavens, which was directed by a Frenchwoman and mainly set in Kyrgyzstan but whose main character was Kazakh.
The first of the films seen last week was ‘Student’ (en France: L’Etudiant), which showed at Cannes two years ago. Variety’s (positive) review sums it up
A roughly faithful adaptation of Dostoyevsky’s “Crime and Punishment,” despite its setting in contempo Almaty, Kazakh filmmaker Darezhan Omirbayev’s “Student” unspools a stark, Bressonian tale of a young man who commits an almost random act of murder. With its deadpan perfs, retro visual style and crime-story plot, the pic almost feels like an Aki Kaurismaki movie but without the jokes or rockabilly music, just the despair.
Contempo Almaty. Looks like a dreary place, with gleaming but soulless office towers, fancy cars, and the accompanying sans foi ni loi nouveau riche guided by the ethos of capitalisme sauvage—Kazakhstan has lots of oil and natural gas, the profits from which accrue to a happy few—, and drab quartiers populaires with crumbling apartment blocks à la sovietique, where the non-nouveau riche live. The film does indeed conjure up Kaurismäki, though I can’t speak about Bresson (whose œuvre, I am embarrassed to admit, I am insufficiently familiar with). The film is, shall we say, languid and with the nameless student protag uttering all of three or four sentences total. Slant magazine’s (not so positive) review, remarking on “the film’s static shots and somnambulistic pacing,” thus concluded
Granted, the obvious precursor here is Robert Bresson’s Pickpocket. But whereas Bresson broke the world and humankind down into shards of perceived experience, only to recast them in what Paul Schrader termed “transcendental style,” Omirbaev adopts rigorous montage as nothing more than a fashion, and narrative ambiguity becomes a ploy just to leave shit unexplained.
A lot of “shit” is indeed unexplained, leaving in the dark those who have not read Dostoyevsky’s classic (and I have not, I am not embarrassed to admit). In respect to the novel, THR’s reviewer wasn’t overly impressed with what the director did with it
Of course, Omirbaev has full artistic license to rework his literary source material however he sees fit. His dream sequences are certainly striking, especially one involving a donkey pulling a Range Rover, which pays neat homage to both Dostoevsky and Bresson. Unfortunately, his more conventional dramatic scenes mostly feel flat and banal. By showing us the ill-judged actions of a depressed slacker rather than the tormented confessions of a dangerous mind, Student succeeds only in sucking all the life out of a classic plot.
Dostoyevsky fans may want to check out the pic and decide for themselves, but others should probably hesitate before putting it in the Netflix queue. French reviews, not surprisingly, are mostly very good. Trailer is here.
The other Kazakh film seen last week was ‘Harmony Lessons’ (en France: Leçons d’harmonie), which premiered at the Berlinale last year. This one is good, though makes for tough watching. I’ll let Variety’s Leslie Felperin—also the reviewer of ‘Student’—describe it
Writer-helmer-editor Emir Baigazin demonstrates near-perfect pitch with his first professional feature, “Harmony Lessons,” an immaculately executed study of bullying and revenge in a small town on the steppes of Kazakhstan. Coaxing intense perfs from a young non-pro cast and demonstrating a painterly eye with austere, digitally shot compositions, Baigazin has crafted a disturbing study in crime and punishment that evokes, among others, Kieslowski and Bresson, but still speaks in its own unique voice.
Kieślowski and Bresson. Kazakh directors are definitely inspired by the greats. And they’re into crime and punishment. The protag in this one, Aslan, is, like his counterpart in ‘Student’, catatonic—he hardly utters a word—and is a student, albeit in high school (not university). The school here may be out in the steppes somewhere but it’s elite-looking, with the students in uniform and being prepared for higher education. The underlying theme of the film, or so I interpreted it, is the hierarchically organized violence that permeates Kazakh society at all levels. Even Aslan, who is victimized by the bullies at his school, tortures insects as part of his science experiments. It’s a bleak film but is powerful and well-done. So I recommend it. Other Hollywood critics who saw the pic at film fests gave it the thumbs up (here, here, and here). French reviews are tops. Trailer is here.
Read Full Post »