The hardest thing to get used to, he says, is knowing that he'll never again see the sun rise.
Something has happened to the sun. Perhaps it's the shadow of Soviet rule, or of one of the subsequent regimes that claimed to be different. Apart from a brief period between the 15th and 18th Centuries, Kazakhstan hasn't had much luck - the Belgium of the Steppes, it was always being marched through or conquered by somebody. Now it's being marched through by three figures huddled up against the cold: a father, mother and daughter seeking sanctuary amongst the ruins. They'll be given a home, a local official assures them, as long as the father (Bajmurat Zhumanov) agrees to go and work as an extra in the television studio.
These are the last days of humanity.
There's a dry, bitter humour about Adilkhan Yerzhanov's slow burning film that reminds one of the classics of the Soviet era. This is a sprawling epic of the least forgiving kind, a film in which almost nothing happens but where that nothingness is vital to understanding what has already happened - and what happens to human beings in the absence of home. In the television studio, somebody straps a bomb to our hero's chest. The trouble is, it doesn't seem to have been done by the special effects department. This is a real bomb. Naturally, he expresses concern. Can it be removed? (It's never quite clear whether he's seeking technical help or official permission). To get it removed, he is told, he will have to go to the right office and fill out the right form. There follows a series of encounters with petty bureaucrats, each dealing with a queue of people who may or may not be in similarly desperate straits. Throughout this, the timer on the bomb gradually counts down.
The only time the man shows a flicker of resistance is when one of the bureaucrats clearly has designs on his daughter (Aliya Yerzhanova). Clad in a bright yellow coat, she seems to represent a last reminder of the sun and the optimism that it represented. Wherever she is standing there is light. Yet her very innocence may betray her in a world where everybody fears an evil god, a malign presence said to be waiting to bring about the final destruction of the world. It's said that when he appears in the sky, those who dare to look into his face will burst into flames.
As heavy on symbolism as it is light on plot, Night God, which screened at the Fantasia International Film Festival, combines the ancient shamanic imagery of the region with the concrete rooms and endless paper-strewn desks of a more recent era. An antlered woman seems to beckon people into the trees but most prefer to stay among the ruins, glum and ragged, barely subsisting. Better the devil you know? Yerzhanov's camera finds an eerie beauty in these contrasting landscapes. Each scene is impeccably composed, its colours balanced in imitation of Renaissance era art - and like such art, it's full of hidden motifs for the trained eye to spot. Sometimes the movement is so slow that one almost believes one is looking at a painting, until some creeping horror becomes apparent. In addition to the tension generated by the bomb, there is a constant sense of discomfort inspired by the sensation that one has been looking at a threat for a while but as only just taken it in - an apt visual metaphor for our times.
None of this will be enough to satisfy those viewers unhappy about the lack of action. The dialogue is pointedly ponderous, signifying the hopelessness of the speeches that emerge with ever greater frequency from societies on the brink of collapse. Not everyone will grasp the film's humour or begin to understand what all that useless beauty is communicating - but for those who do, and who allow themselves to be absorbed, this is a treasure.