Tulpan is a work of art, and a beautiful one at that, but its subject is so culturally specific and its narrative so relentlessly mundane in its realism that only the most disciplined and patient of filmgoers will exit the theater not feeling as if they've just been force-fed their cinematic vegetables.
In the wilderness of Kazakhstan, a young man named Asa (Askhat Kuchencherekov) has recently returned from the Russian Navy with the modest dream of finding a bride, acquiring a flock of sheep and living the simple life on the desolate Hunger Steppe, a stretch of desert that's 500km from the nearest city.
The sailor has only one prospect for a future bride-to-be. The girl he pines after, Tulpan, is never fully revealed to the audience or to her suitor; she hides behind a curtain as her parents repeatedly decline Asa's desperate pleas for marriage, and retreats to the shadows when cornered by Asa afterwards. She's destined for college and her parents see Asa as inferior, though that doesn't stop him from making numerous unwelcome visits and attempting to impress the family by regaling them with tales of battling an octopus.
Accompanying him on these visits is Asa's brother-in-law and employer Ondas, and his goofy best friend Boni. Ondas is a hardened shepherd who acts as a sort of browbeating father figure to Asa (who desperately wants to be given a flock of his own). The sex-obsessed Boni wants to move to the city where the girls are easy and numerous, but Asa stubbornly pursues Tulpan, convinced that he's destined to be with a girl whose face he's never even seen.
And that's the story--Asa broods over Tulpan, tends to his family's flock and tries hard to impress his brother-in-law, all amidst the desolate, unforgiving landscape of Kazakhstan. There's no discernible dramatic arc, embedded meaning or symbolism; it's an exotic slice of life, a classic coming-of-age story made new by its otherness.
This is the first narrative feature for documentary filmmaker Sergey Dvostsevoy, and his camera captures the everyday moments of life on the Steppe with an incredible sense of realism. A major subplot that involves the death of numerous newborn lambs is filmed with stomach-churning accuracy, and it's questionable whether the live birth of a stillborn was actually staged. The director meanderingly films the landscape and the logistics of shepherding with long, unbroken takes that propel the picture with a deliberate trance-like pacing, and although Tulpan has moments of both levity and poignancy, its viewing can sometimes feel like watching an OETA special in the middle of the night. That's not to downplay its merits; Dvostsevoy is obviously a master of his craft, and Tulpan is certainly memorable as an ethnographic study lesson.
It's just going to be hard for general audiences to find a point of connection. But if ready and receptive, many will find the film to be a fascinating and gratifying experience.
Over and Out
I found myself growing restless during 12. We already know the story; the Russian film is based directly on Reginald Rose's 1954 stageplay 12 Angry Men (which was subsequently made into a great film by Sidney Lumet), but director and co-writer Nikita Mikhalkov has ballooned the original 96 minute story into a mammoth and overwrought two-and-a-half hour epic where each character pontificates through endless anecdotes and speeches.
Though each original twist and turn of plot remains, Mikhalov has successfully morphed the American story into something more specific to Russian culture, and had he been more disciplined in his storytelling, 12 may have been something more worthy of its source material.
A Chechan teenager sits in jail accused of murdering his adoptive father. His trial has just ended, and a jury of 12 men is locked in a room, expected to hand down a quick and easy verdict of "guilty." At first, all are in agreement that the boy is indeed responsible, but one dissenting juror insists on a closer examination of the evidence before a final decision is made.
Racial tension is palpable. Russian, Jewish and Chechan jurors face off, confronting one another and revealing prejudices, opposing ideals and preconceived notions about justice and the law. The film's most brilliant stroke is in its climax and denouement, when the film departs from the source material as the mostly silent foreman finally speaks up and causes the jurors and the audience to rethink the possible ramifications of the reached verdict.
The problem is that each juror is given a prolonged moment to shine, with long, flowery, bloated monologues detailing some past life experience that explains their reasoning and motive. The original did the same, but the words were sharp and concise and propulsive. The words in 12 feel like first draft material, as do the needless flashbacks to the teenager's childhood.
It's still an arresting film; the volatile group dynamic is almost unbearable in its tension.
Each performance is pitch-perfect, with actors (all obviously veterans) crafting complex, nuanced characters of tremendous depth. Technical elements are also above average; cinematography is beautiful, music appropriately tense, and editing close to perfect (though the picture should be about 30 minutes shorter).
It all boiled down to writing; after the fifth or sixth speech that began with "I once had a wife who" or "I once had a child" or "I remember when", I was ready to call for a hung jury and be done with it.
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