Saturday, July 3rd, 2010

image of Tulpan poster

My Darling B said she heard good things about the movie Tulpan at the film festival last fall and, indeed, there seem to be nothing but good reviews about it everywhere we look: “Astonishing!” “Magnificent!” “Spectacular!” are typical of the ways it’s described, so we popped the DVD in the player, curled up on the sofa and expected to be blown away by an Astonishing! Magnificent! Spectacular! film.

However …

The film tells the story of Asa, a young Kazakh who’s finished an enlistement in the navy and has returned home to fulfill his dream of becoming a herdsman on the steppes of Kazakhstan. There are just two things standing in his way: Herdsmen are tenant farmers who get their flocks from a guy they call Boss, and Boss won’t give Asa a herd until he has a bride. There is just one available woman on the steppe, Tulpan, but she doesn’t want to marry Asa. She thinks his ears are too big. That’s how picky she can afford to be.

So he can’t get a herd until he’s married, and he can’t get married because the only available woman doesn’t like the size of his ears. (Apparently she’s never heard about the “big ears, big … hands” correlation.) Also, he sort of sucks as a herdsman. Keeping a bunch of sheep in one place seems like an elementary skill, but Asa doesn’t have it, and his brother-in-law doesn’t want to help him learn. More to the point, his brother-in-law doesn’t want Asa breathing the same air he is. There’s a little tension between them.

But Asa keeps at it. He really seems to love living on the steppe. I don’t know much about the steppes of Kazakhstan, but this movie makes this particular steppe look something like the Oklahoma Dustbowl of the 1920’s. Scene after scene is filled with vast, flat expanses of powdery tan dust that blows up in great clouds, or spirals into the sky in whirling columns. The only vegetation as far as the eye can see is dried-out scrub brush that grows in mean fist-sized clumps. Five days living in a place like that and I’d beat my brains out with a rock, but Asa wants to set up his yurt there, start a family and raise sheep the rest of his life.

Okay for him, but it doesn’t go that way. He has no chance of getting married. Zero. None. Tulpan doesn’t want to marry him. Tulpan’s mother doesn’t want him to marry her. There are no other women around, so he’s not going to get married. Therefore, he’s not going to get a flock. His only option is to live with his sister and brother-in-law. His sister loves him, but his brother-in-law treats him like shit. There goes his dream. What a fine, uplifting movie this has become.

And another thing: Everybody gushes about the scenery. One reviewer even describes the landscape as “lyrical.” It’s sand! No, it’s not even sand, it’s frigging dust! It’s the kind of dust you’d get if you cracked open the bag from your vacuum cleaner and dumped it on the floor of your living room. Now imagine that covering a living room floor that stretched to the horizon in every direction, and you’d have a picture of the steppes that we’re talking about as lyrical. I must be missing the poetic bone in my body that would let me see that as lyrical. To me, it looks worse than a cat box.

So I can’t recommend it, not for the story and not for the cinematography, sorry. Asa’s friend, Boni, is kind of funny. He drives from yurt to yurt on a tractor that’s a sort of peddlar’s wagon, bringing water, fresh vegetables and pornography. He wants to move to the city and keeps trying to convince Asa to go with him. Why he doesn’t dump Asa on the steppe and go on his own mystified me.

And I kind of liked watching the scenes of the Kazakh family life, with the little kids running around on their stick horses, or singing songs, or listening to the reports from the big city of Almaty on the radio. It was sort of like watching a National Geographic special. I’ve always liked those quite a bit.

Tulpan didn’t quite make it as a movie for me, though.

Tulpan | 9:31 am CST
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