Within a mere decade, Adilkhan Yerzhanov has evolved into one of the most original modern filmmakers. Every new film of his surprises, intrigues, and occasionally confuses, pushing the envelope of contemporary Kazakhstani cinema both thematically and stylistically. Yerzhanov’s unpredictability is beginning to resemble a game with viewers and critics—and perhaps with himself and his closest collaborators—and it is anyone’s guess where exactly his next adventure will take him. This unpredictability includes the slow but steady building of a relationship with native audiences: while Yerzhanov started in an unabashed low-budget arthouse format with minimal outreach, A Dark, Dark Man has been released in Kazakhstan’s cinemas and brought its maker a new degree of name recognition, beyond the national and international festival circuit.
A Dark, Dark Man is a thriller, and a superb one at that. Its visual minimalism conceals an inner explosiveness that is barely contained by the highly controlled narrative rhythm. The film operates on several levels, of which the social is arguably the most openly provocative. Yerzhanov depicts ubiquitous corruption as a matter of course, especially in the political and the legal realm. In Karatas, a fictitious provincial place that has been the setting of some earlier films, corruption defines everyday life. Everybody knows the dirty rules, and everybody plays by them. Everybody—except the mentally challenged Pukuar and the two youngsters accompanying him. When the first investigator negotiates with Pukuar the price for his “confession” to a grizzly murder, it becomes clear that the targeted man does not understand the bribe’s cynical purpose or even the value of money as such. Pukuar and his companions play hide-and-seek in the overripe, dryly yellow cornfield. Their childlike ignorance about the real world is the condition of their happiness, while the rest of the characters are involved in falsifying evidence, cooking the books, arresting an innocent, and preparing for his execution to be masked as “suicide”—a routine to which all involved acquiesce with an indifference that leaves the viewer speechless. A detective sent by the attorney’s office, young Bekzat Alibekov, also plays along, having killed manipulated suspects many times before.
Then, the deadly routine comes to a screeching halt. A young journalist, Ariana Saparova, arrives in Karatas with the assignment to document Bekzat’s investigation. Since she may have the backing of authorities in the city, the spectacle of law and order must be staged in earnest, much to the frustration of Bekzat and his supervisors. Ariana acts as if she had never heard of cover-ups but, of course, her innocence is only an act: she is sharp and understands much of the causality of events, although she does underestimate the power of evil in Karatas, which will eventually catch up with her as well. Despite the unsavory nature of her topic, she has retained an inner purity that connects her with the dancing and drawing Pukuar and his little company, and their funny games. However, Bekzat is immediately put off by Ariana, accusing her of traveling to Southern Kazakhstan like on a safari. But the young woman’s insistence on law and civility ultimately impresses him, as does the spontaneous artistry of Pukuar and the pure souls surrounding him.
Bekzat easily figures out that the serial killer behind the fourth murder of a boy in four years is one of the most powerful men in the region, whose election poster featuring the slogan “I Serve Society” is on display on every corner. Initially, the detective has no problem participating in concealing the identity of the real perpetrator. But at some point, his mask of morose indifference breaks and he is no longer able to function within the corrupt system. While strangling a former colleague whom he suspects of ratting him out, he watches himself in a small mirror on the wall: after that moment of sudden self-awareness, nothing is as it used to be. Yerzhanov even gives Bekzat a chance at redemption for the crimes he committed. In the finale, he is the one to establish justice after years of brutal mockery.
The character constellation is intriguing and arguably the only element in A Dark, Dark Man that implicitly associates this violent thriller with a pre-1991 cinematic framework—perhaps unconsciously so, given Yerzhanov’s strong antipathy to the Soviet-Kazakh legacy. At the beginning, Bekzat represents a curious inversion of the honest-to-the-core investigators which were portrayed by Doskhan Zholzhaksynov and Djambul Khudaibergenov in the 1970s and 1980s. Just like them, he is physically imposing and disciplined. However, and this is particularly disturbing, this macho demonstrates the very opposite of the noble disposition that was an integral part of the old generation of Kazakhstani investigators—he functions without resistance in the wheels of post-Soviet injustice. Only when he realizes that he is unable to shoot Pukuar, despite repeated attempts, does it become clear that not all is lost in Bekzat. Apparently, Ariana and the trio of childlike innocents have set in motion a process of growing ethical insight, although it remains invisible behind his impenetrable face.
Ariana—educated, elegant, and dignified—continues a tradition of righteous young women such as Gulnara Dusmatova’s character in The Human Factor (Chelovecheskii faktor, 1984), Sergei Shutov’s thriller about corruption in the Kazakhstani textile industry. However, the origins of her moral forthrightness are not communist but Western. In a key episode, she quotes from Montesquieu’s Spirit of the Laws and tells Bekzat about every suspect’s Miranda rights, a term he has never heard of before. Ariana embodies the principles of a new Kazakhstani civilization that is beginning to dissociate itself from its 20th-century roots. The same is true for Yerzhanov’s film as a whole.
Apart from the social level, A Dark, Dark Man is a cinematic treasure trove. Yerzhanov’s recent genre experiments have shown that he is a filmmaker with an acute awareness of film history. A Dark, Dark Man contains witty allusions to the great thrillers of Roman Polanski, Jean-Luc Godard, and other directors, whose work Yerzhanov obviously admires. In this regard, his film deserves repeated viewings, rewarding cinema devotees for their own detective work. Finally, Yerzhanov’s film offers a fascinating cultural-historical dimension as well. Indeed, A Dark, Dark Man with its theme of brutal immorality that blatantly challenges the very foundations of society, goes beyond Kazakhstani concreteness. The fact that this film was co-produced with France is not merely a technical detail: its “French connection” ranges from parallels to the legendary mass murderer Gilles de Rais, to Joris-Karl Huysman’s 1891 novel Là-Bas, and Paul McGuigan’s high-caliber, albeit underappreciated, historical crime drama The Reckoning (2002).
Beyond its harsh social criticism and delightful cinematic intertextuality, A Dark, Dark Man is, first and foremost, a film about the law, about the fundamental values of right and wrong for the survival of society. Yerzhanov normally shuns pathos, but, because the evil he depicts is so omnipotent, he can allow himself a small dosage of pathos in the end. When the mortally wounded Bekzat reads to the gang of wealthy thugs their Miranda rights, their laughter in disbelief goes back to the story’s point of departure, demonstrating the cynicism that is so common with respect to human rights. In this cultural-ethical context, Yerzhanov does make a statement: A Dark, Dark Man is a fundamentally anti-cynical film.