Askhat Kuchencherekov, in 'Tulpan'

Dir. Sergei Dvortsevoy
(2009, Not Rated, 102 min)
★ ★ ★ ½

We never see the title character of Tulpan. Not her face, anyway. She hides behind curtains, runs away sheepishly, and doesn’t say a word. She’s not a character as much as she is representative of an idea. In the opening scene, Asa (Askhat Kuchencherekov), newly discharged from the Russian navy, negotiates to marry Tulpan, the only eligible bachelorette for miles and miles in his Kazakhstan home, but she turns him down. His ears are too big.

Tulpan is not just a marriage prospect. She’s a symbol of Asa’s life on the Kazakh steppe. He currently lives with his sister Samal (Samal Esljamova) and her husband Ondas (Ondas Besikbasov). Ondas is a traditional man, unhappy to be supporting his brother-in-law. Asa’s naval service has made him worldly, but he can’t seem to make a place for himself in his own world. He and his best friend Boni (Tolepbergen Baisakalov) discuss the possibility of living a much different life in a city, but on the collar of his uniform he has drawn what he truly longs for — a yurt of his own, with a farm and animals. The owner of the land won’t grant him any of those things unless he has a wife. Can he make himself the sort of man who will prosper here? No sooner than he can make his ears smaller.

Co-written and directed by Sergei Dvortsevoy, Tulpan is a beautiful evocation of a way of life. We’re struck by the landscape — an endlessly vast expense of level terrain, its dull sand color stretching to the distant horizon. When Samal and Ondas’s children play, they are the only sound in the world, and the distant camera finds no other living soul as far as the eye can see. Dust storms are frequent, filling the frame or shown in wide shots of cyclones whipping their yurt. A powerful scene shows an arduous attempt to save a newborn calf. Life is hard on the steppe. Always has been. Is it noble to stay, or foolish?

The family is divided between urban progress and rural tradition. Asa wants to stay, but may not be suited to it. Ondas has no interest in anything beyond it. Samal loves them both; her heart breaks when they fight, and ours break when we watch her, crying helplessly over the seemingly irreconcilable differences between her culture’s past and its future.