A family forging a new life, locals wary of new arrivals, dishonesty as a societal framework, sacrifice as a survival mechanism: these are the building blocks of The Owners (Ukkili kamshat), none traversing new territory. And yet that’s exactly what the film does overall, with its surreal flourishes and heightening of the tragic in addition to the comedic, as steeped in the isolation, insularity and economic instability inherent to its Kazakhstan locale.
Three siblings – once-incarcerated elder brother John (Aidyn Sakhaman), teenage wannabe performer Yerbol (Yerbolat Yerzhan) and their unwell younger sister Aliya (Aliya Zainalova) – head away from their city upbringing and to the ramshackle, remote village cottage their now-departed mother has left them to call home. A fresh start beckons, in their minds but not in the situation they find. After moving into their inherited abode, they are taunted by Zhuba (Bauyrzhan Kaptagai), the residence’s decade-long alcoholic squatter, and brother to the community’s police chief (Nurbek Mukushev).
First one, then a series of confrontations results, driven by acts of bullying, and responded to with futile attempts to garner assistance from law enforcement. The wilds of the grassy setting, all hills, dirt and greenery littered with the most rustic signs of the township, are rife with unruliness – not just in the evident overgrown state, but also in the favouring of savageness rather than propriety in settling the central dispute. Accordingly, writer / director Adilkhan Yerzhanov plays with hallmarks of the western genre as a frontier is fought over by figures flawed on all sides. Within such packaging, the filmmaker doesn’t hide the commentary at the centre of his third feature after 2011’s Rieltor and 2013’s Constructors, or his recurrent interest with issues of land in his country.
The violent tussle over property that ensues in The Owners doesn’t just take its cues from one type of content, nor does it let its clear statement overshadow its artistic approach. Dreamlike yet dour, the film swiftly steps into the realm of magical realism as it maintains a sense of humour about setbacks, corruption and injustice. The performances play along, most united in keeping a straight face but never acquiescing to overwhelming solemnity. Only Kaptagai and his henchman betray the deadpan display, cartoonish villains written and acted as such.
Within the combination of seriousness and whimsy, Yerzhanov is as concerned with juxtaposition as he is with the insidiousness of the situation the orphaned family find themselves in, both in visuals and in amusement. He favours symmetrical framing but focuses on sprawling messiness over any semblance of order, as evidenced by long takes that let characters wander in and out. It’s a technique that jars, as does the use of comic interludes played as strange sight gags. That’s the intention and the lasting impression, in fitting with the filmmaker’s vivid vision of his fragile homeland, and the sometimes-harsh, sometimes-hallucinatory feature that results.
Rating: 4 stars out of 5
The Owners (Ukkili kamshat)
Director: Adilkhan Yerzhanov
Kazakhstan, 2014, 93 mins
Brisbane Asia Pacific Film Festival
29 November – 14 December