Tulpan, the first narrative feature from Kazakh filmmaker Sergey Dvortsevoy, augurs well for this former documentarian’s future cinematic career. The film tells the uncomplicated story of Asa, a fresh-faced young sailor who only wishes to find a wife and live the simple life of a herdsman on the Steppes. Back home from a tour at sea, Asa has gained the ire of his parents after foiling several marriage arrangements. Given one last chance to wed, he meets the beautiful, titular character, but is stymied by her parents, who find him an unsuitable prospective mate (and by her complaint that his ears are too big). The plot that follows sees Asa furthering his quest for love and balancing the demands of his father with those of his dreams. Really, though, Tulpan exists just as much to show the daily lifestyle of Asa’s family and countrymen as it does to tell any tale. The movie locates drama in the pressure that the young men of the region feel to migrate to the city, pays close attention to the family dynamics in the tight quarters of Asa’s yurt, and yields surprisingly effective comedy by highlighting the social awkwardness that the awkward Asa must overcome to successfully court his bride.
More than most ethnographic cinema, Tulpan devises a formal strategy that makes the film about aesthetic concerns in addition to its sociological ones. Dvortsevoy’s background as a documentarian, and his tendency to let the camera keep rolling in hopes of capturing some unexpected sliver of reality, pays major dividends on more than one occasion. His scenes unfold as uninterrupted takes. They are frequently unchoreographed, but that quality only adds to the impression that Dvortsevoy is showing us an unmitigated glimpse at a foreign culture. One scene in particular, in which a baby lamb is delivered, nearly dies, and is revived, is especially miraculous. It’s the sort of serendipitous cinematic moment that could never be planned for. It’s difficult to imagine any better-scripted climax to this story. As it unfolds, Tulpan generally reveals itself to be both more controlled and more structured than it does at first glance, though. Despite a seeming lack of artifice, Dvortsevoy shapes this material with the skill of a natural born storyteller.
Tulpan does admittedly make concessions toward the expectations of western audiences. Its plot is formulaic, and some of its characters are sketched vaguely enough to seem more archetypical than authentic. There are a few pandering pop cultural references scattered about, and there is never much doubt about the ultimate direction of the story. Nonetheless, there’s something special at work here. Because Tulpan allows us a look at an area seldom seen on movie screens, and because it manages to do that while remaining entertaining (and, in a few instances, thrilling), it stands as a noteworthy achievement.