We never actually get to see the Tulpan of the title, who is the object of the affections of 22-year-old sheepherder Asa (Asat Kunchinchirekov). Having recently completed his national service in the Russian navy, he has returned to the Betpak-Dala steppe in southern Kazakhstan, where he is temporarily residing in a yurt with his sister Samal (Samal Yeslyamova) and her farmer husband Ondas (Ondasyn Besikbasov) and their three children. Asa doesn’t seem cut out for the gruelling nomadic existence, but he dreams of having his own flock, and for that to happen he must have a wife. Tulpan appears to be the only eligible young woman for literally miles, but she herself wants to study in the big city.
Tulpan is the first fictional feature of Kazakh documentary-maker Sergey Dvortsevoy, yet it is powerfully grounded in reality. It was photographed entirely on location, in a world where sandstorms rage across giant plains and where there are no official roads, running water nor electricity. Whilst he refuses to romanticise the endeavours of his characters, who somehow keep going in these unforgiving conditions, Dvortsevoy successfully mines a vein of gentle, observational humour. Thus the boyish Asa starts telling improbable tales of his exploits battling sea monsters in a vain bid to impress Tulpan’s parents, and when he’s criticised for having big ears, a picture of Prince Charles is produced as proof of his marital value.
Shooting on film rather than digital video, Polish cinematographer of Jola Dylewska captures in long, complicated takes such remarkable moments as the live-birth of a sheep (assisted only by an inexperienced Asa), or when a injured baby camel, confined to the side-car of the vet’s motorbike, is driven away and is pursued by its mother. The human cast, a mixture of professional and non-professional actors, are entirely convincing in their physically challenging roles: look out for a terrific supporting performance from Tulepbergen Baisakalov, who excels playing Asa’s extrovert, Boney M-loving pal. The end result is one of 2009’s most unexpected cinematic treats.
GFT, Glasgow from Sun 6-Tue 8 Dec. Filmhouse, Edinburgh from Fri 11-Tue 15 Dec.