October 27, 2008

Tokyo International Film Festival, Final Day: Tulpan Wins the Tokyo Sakura Grand Prix

(The award winners of the 21st Tokyo International Film Festival. The director of Tulpan, Sergey Dvortsevoy is in the middle of the front row, flanked by actors Samal Yeslyamova on his left and Askhat Kuchinchirekov on his right.)
While I was busy watching films and not getting around to writing about them, the film festival was gradually winding down. The closing ceremony was held today, and myriad awards handed out. There was the expected oh-why-did-I-not-watch-that (I particularly regretted having missed out on seeing Félicité Wouassi, who won Best Actress for With a Little Help from Myself), the huh-what award (Vincent Cassel took home Best Actor for the flashy but empty biopic Public Enemy Number One Part One and Part Two), and the joy of a film that I had adored being recognized with an award.

That would be
Tulpan, the Kazkhastan-set film that received both the Tokyo Sakura Grand Prix (and a cash prize of 100,000 dollars) and the Best Director award for Sergey Dvortsevoy (5,000 dollars). Centered around a nomad family living in the steppes, the unlikely crowd-pleaser was a highly naturalistic piece of work that shed light on a culture largely unknown to international audiences.

Asa (Askhat Kuchinchirekov) is a young man who has just completed the naval service and come to live with his married sister Samal (Samal Yeslyamova) and three children. Asa longs to have his own yurt and flock of sheep, but Ondas, Samal's husband, forbids it until he finds a wife. The only girl in relative proximity is Tulpan (Kazakh for "tulip"), but she rejects him on account that his ears are too big. (Kuchinchirekov he had to get up at 5 every morning to put metal springs behind his ears and make them stick out.)

The film's greatest achievement is the unforced naturalism that fills in the bare bones of the story, creating a rich portrait of nomad life. Shot 500 miles from the nearest town, the isolation, arid land, and winds make the environment truly formidable. Working only with diegetic sound, Dvortsevoy emphasizes its vastness by allowing the viewer to hear sounds such as the wind, or a little girl singing, before panning slowly to catch up with the source.

The cast works wonders, generating the warmth and tenderness of a family without succumbing to easy idealization. The scenes set in the family's yurt are often cacophonous, with the eldest boy reciting news from the radio, the middle girl singing her heart out, and the adorable toddler running amok, but they never descend into madness. So convincing were they all, I initially thought that the director had befriended and filmed a real family. In reality, Kuchinchirekov, now 26 years old, was a student at an arts university in Almaty who was studying to become a director, and Yeslyamova (24) was a stage actress from the north of Kazakhstan
who had just graduated from performing school. The three children, however, were siblings from the south of the country, where the film was shot.

While the finished film is seemingly effortless and fluid, both the director and the actors admitted that production was difficult, particularly when working with animals. (The film features animals such as sheep, a goat, and a mother camel and her baby in crucial scenes.) A scene where an amorous goat kisses Asa took a month of said animal getting used to the actor. And try not to feel queasy when Asa and his brother-in-law take turns breathing air into the mouth of a just-born lamb and sucking the caul out. (Kuchinchirekov said simply, "I trusted [Dvortsevoy] with my life and the results are reflected on the screen.") Then there was the aforementioned two-and-a-half year old boy, whom the director said was "just like the animals."

No matter how "real" a film feels, it is, of course, not reality. The heartbreak of this fact was reinforced when Dvortsevoy dedicated his award to Bereke Turganbayev, who played Beke, the oldest brother. A little after the end of production, he had gone fishing with his father and had drowned in the river. He was fourteen years old.

No comments: