The English-language dominance in UK cinemas means that we’re only ever exposed to a limited and often narrow range of European cinema. Whilst you’d expect this to be the best of the best, licencing is often down to other factors such as cast, crew and distribution deals. The further east you go within the continent, the less chance there is of being exposed to that country’s cinema. Take Kazakhstan. Borat aside, I would be surprised if many people could name a single film from the former Soviet territory. Yet, director Adilkhan Yerzhanov has made ten over the last decade. His latest is Ulbolsyn.
City-dwelling Ulbolsyn (Asel Sadvakasova) is trying to arrange for her sixteen-year-old sister to study abroad. When her sibling is kidnapped by Urgen, a good man and a leader in the village she grew up in, it puts a spanner in the works. Her attempts at rescue are not helped by her parents, who are quite happy with the match. Or Azhar herself for that matter. A SWAT Team leader (Sanjar Madi) tries to intercede, but rural Kazakhstan is a law unto itself.
From the offset, it’s clear that Ulbolsyn isn’t your average tale. The indignities and abdurdities of Kazak life are at odds with what we expect and the ensuing drama plays somewhere between deadpan and tragedy. It’s relentless in a very roundabout way. Yerzhanov uses the perversity of the situation to make his points. As a commentary on the backward politics and attitudes of a rural traditionalist patriarchal society, Ulbolsyn is quietly scathing.