starring Busurman Odurakaev, Tynar Abdrazaeva, Mukanbet Toktobaev, Kabatai Kyzy Elmira
written and directed by Marat Sarulu
starring Mirlan Abdykalykov, Bakyt Toktokozhayev
written by Ernest Abdyjaparov, Talgat Asyrankulov, Aktan Arym Kubat
directed by Aktan Arym Kubat
starring Talgat Assetov, Samat Beysenbin, Baljan Bisembekova, Indira Jeksembaeva
written and directed by Darezhan Omirbayev
by Travis Mackenzie Hoover It's impossible to understand an entire national cinema--or, for that matter, several national cinemas--through the prism of exactly three films. That's all I have by which to judge the Cinematheque Ontario's massive series Films From Along the Silk Road, which brings together films from five Central Asian countries--and so I offer my opinions with trepidation: I wouldn't want to turn you off of something magnificent that might be hiding within the schedule. Nevertheless, the selections offered to the press are/were of a fair-to-middling nature--pictorially accomplished despite extremely low budgets, but lacking a finished quality in themes and narratives. They're fascinating as cultural documents from a part of the world that never makes much of an impact in North America, but as cinema only one rates a proper recommendation.
Case in point is the Kyrgyzstan/Kazakhstan co-production My Brother Silk Road, which tries to encompass everything in its 80 minutes and winds up serving no one. It's sort of a Robert Altman saga rendered in the miniature style of Prague Spring-era Czech filmmaking, dealing with a series of people on and surrounding a passenger train heading up the former Silk Road, and it juxtaposes a number of characters and storylines as the train approaches and rattles on. From a group of children playing near the tracks (who provide the film's first section) to the female conductor who fears for her directionless teenage daughter, from the group of toughs who menace passengers to the pensive (and self-piteous) artist who draws his impressions of the people he encounters, the whole world is crammed into the area surrounding the train, and it would take a virtuoso to make it all make sense. Unfortunately, such a person is nowhere in evidence.
One can't fault the actual film craft. Director Marat Sarulu works miracles with his micro-minuscule budget, making his black-and-white images crisp and elegant and smartly utilizing the cramped interiors of the train (no easy feat with such confined spaces). And it's certainly an ambitious film, gunning for a symphony of humanity that might resonate were there more articulation. But the film is so short that it can't help but short-change these narratives; it barely name-checks the problems of the individuals before ricocheting to the next vignette. Thus what begins promisingly fizzles out in the end, the victim of an underwritten screenplay.
Meanwhile, Aktan Abadikaikov's Kyrgyzstani Swing is City Lights for a remote village, inasmuch as it utilizes sound instead of language to achieve that fluid silent-movie quality. It begins with the enigmatic image of a girl on a swing in a thatch of trees--she's being pushed both by a pre-pubescent boy and a grinning, mentally-handicapped man; the film follows the group as the girl is wooed away from the boy and man by a soldier, leaving them alone and bereft.
Technically, it's a triumph, a fusion of sepia image and expressive sound that will have you dreaming of F.W. Murnau all over again. And yet, Murnau would probably win that particular smackdown because of a greater degree of articulation. There's something a little too generalized about this tale, which takes as read the innocence of the two male leads and the pull of love for the girl; there's a sense in which we've seen this all before, and no new insight or unforeseen depth of feeling lies in the sketchy, sketchy narrative. After a while we want to see something other than the frolic of the man and boy or their stunned incomprehension at the girl's abandonment of them; in a sense, it's just as underwritten as My Brother Silk Road, and as a result just misses the mark of success.
If success is what you're after, there is Kairat, a smart and droll Kazakh take on young, uncomprehending love. Director Darezhan Omirbaev--last seen on these shores at the 2001 Toronto International Film Festival, with his even better film The Road--is not one to inflate the importance of his eponymous hero's quest for romance: he knows that the habit is to inflate the pounding young emotions well out of proportion, and his reining them in makes for some excellent dry comedy. Thus the lead Kairat simply knows he needs a girl (doesn't matter who, just as long as she's pretty) and approaches one he spies at a movie simply to satisfy his youthful duty to have a girlfriend. In between, he negotiates the hilariously manly rituals that exist at Kairat's hostel-home, and affectionately notes the madness of youthful rites-of-passage.
While the tone and subject matter remind one of Czech films like Closely Watched Trains, Omirbaev's approach is all his own--and would be wise viewing for all directors of angst-ridden teenpix on this side of the world. He's half-in, half out of his protagonist's slightly illogical desires, creating an interesting tension: one laughs even as one acknowledges the impossibility of our hero's eluding stunned incomprehension. He's poignant and hilarious all at the same time, which pretty much sums up the whole horrorshow that is being young, horny, and confused. Once again, superb B&W cinematography backs up the film, and once again the Lilliputian budget has been evaded successfully. But there's life and intelligence at work here, giving the film a complete feeling that eludes the other two films being shown.
But wait! This is only the tip of the series' iceberg. The program notes promise a vast and varied sweep of material, from recent Uzbekistani epics involving Genghis Khan (The Fall of Otrar) to classics and important films unlikely to show up again. If the selections made by the press department didn't necessarily wow me, they did show the difference of the region's approach--and a change of cultural approach is something for which all thinking cinephiles should be in the market. So open the program, take a deep breath, and make a selection. You could surprise yourself. Originally published: November 7, 2003.