Dir. Adilkhan Yerzhanov. Kazakhstan, France. 2018. 100 mins
The path to romance between Saltanat (Dinara Baktybayeva) and her impoverished but enthusiastic admirer Kuandyk (Kuandyk Dyussembayev) is littered with obstacles when the pair are forced to leave their mountain village for the city. Saltanat is expected by her family to barter herself to pay off a family debt; Kuandyk embarks upon a career as a potato carrier but his gung ho approach to the accepted hierarchies at the vegetable truck raises eyebrows. The latest film from Kazakh filmmaker Adilkhan Yerzhanov (The Owners, The Plague At The Karatas Village) contains some eye-catching moments but the combination of languorous pacing and laboured line delivery means that it is is likely to play best on the festival circuit.
Anyone with a working knowledge of French literature will surmise that tthe title doesn’t bode particularly well for the protagonists.
The title is taken from Albert Camus’ ’The Stranger’, a fact established during a stilted exchange between Saltanat and Kuandyk in which it is revealed that he has been covertly reading her books. The quote comes from near the end of Camus’ novel, at a point when the protagonist Meursault has rid himself of hope and accepted his imminent execution with equanimity. Neither Saltanat nor Kuandyk comment on the context of the excerpt, however anyone with a working knowledge of French literature will surmise that this choice of pull quote doesn’t bode particularly well for the burgeoning relationship.
Both Saltanat and Kuandyk find that their fates are governed by the misadventures of others. The sudden death of her father leaves the family saddled with the debts he accrued. Her mother is threatened with prison and the family home looks set to be repossessed. At her mother’s urging, Saltanat, arrestingly dressed in a scarlet dress and matching shoes, seeks help from her uncle. His solution, however, involves a reciprocal arrangement with his toad-like business partner. Kuandyk meanwhile lost his passport to a friend who used his identity to embezzle money.
A recurring motif of foregrounded flowers in close up evokes the fragility of the innocent connection between the pair when all around them is crude and corrupt. Saltanat and Kuandyk represent an idealised view of country living which cannot be sustained in the cold hard realities of the city.
A decision to favour natural lighting over artificial means that some of the shots are inconsistent. The night sequences in particular tend to be somewhat murky. However Yerzhanov makes striking use of the Kazakh landscape, in particular the wide open steppes where both Saltanat and Kuandyk grew up. The use of colour is also evocative – the vivid red of Saltanat’s dress finds an echo elsewhere in the film, in the strident neon that illuminates the city after dark, in the flames which lick the sides of a warehouse which Kuandyk inexplicably decides to torch. When, towards the end of the film, Saltanat trades her red frock for a black one, it is a visual representation of her disappointment. It feels as though a spark of hope has been extinguished.
Production companies: Astana Film Fund, Short Brothers
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Producers: Serik Abishev, Olga Khlashe (va
Screenplay: Adilkhan Yerzhanov, Roelof Jan Minneboo
Production design: Yermek Utegenov
Editing: Yedige Nessipbekov
Cinematography: Aydar Sharipov
Music: Nurassyl Nuridin
Cast: Dinara Baktybayeva, Kuandyk Dyussembayev, Kulzhamilya Belzhanova, Baymurat Zhumanov, Bauyrzhan Kaptagay, Nurbek Mukushev, Yerken Gubashev, Teoman Khos, Konstantin Kozlov, Kuanysh Turdalin, Talgat Sydykbekov, Arken Ibdimin