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AFI Festival: "Spotlight on Kazakhstan"

Tulpan

It’s one of the routine — if entirely unpredictable — pleasures of the international film-festival circuit that, every few years, an entire group of talented directors from some long-dormant corner of the moviemaking universe will stand up and demand to be counted. Such was the case with China in the 1980s, Iran in the ’90s, Argentina and Romania at the dawn of the ’00s — and now, it would appear, with Kazakhstan. In actuality, only one of the three features comprising AFI Fest’s “Showcase on Kazakhstan” — Guka Omarova’s Native Dancer — is the work of a new filmmaker. But while Tulpan director Sergey Dvortsevoy (Bread Day, Highway) and Chouga director Darezhan Omirbaev (Cardiogram, Killer) are considered modern masters by many in the festival and film-programming world, the vagaries of international distribution have bestowed their films with a subterranean (at best) existence in the West. But what a difference a little official validation makes! The current Kazakh revival stems in no small measure from Tulpan’s triumphant performance in Cannes this year, where it won the top prize of the Un Certain Regard competition and enchanted even the most cynical critics with its simple story of a young sailor who dreams of becoming a shepherd, with a wife and a yurt to call his own. Filmed on Kazakhstan’s imposing Hunger Steppe, whose vast, sand-blown vistas suggest a Monument Valley stripped of its monuments, Dvortsevoy’s first fiction feature transports us to a place most will never visit, where life is lived as it was centuries ago but whose inhabitants seem wonderfully familiar: Rejected by his would-be betrothed on account of his large, protruding ears, our would-be hero spirals into self-doubt, in no way helped by his gruff brother-in-law’s persistent suggestion that he isn’t man enough for the shepherding life. Graced by a Chaplinesque sense of the humor to be mined from tragedy, and featuring a large cast of camels, sheep and dogs that frequently threaten to upstage their human co-stars, this joyous, one-of-a-kind movie is a must for anyone who doubts that the cinema has surprises still left in store. Where Tulpan feels timeless, Chouga is ineluctably modern, from its steel-and-glass Almaty high-rises to the terse, detached comportment of the characters — no matter that Omirbaev’s 90-minute film is, in fact, a skillfully pared-to-the-bone adaptation of Tolstoy’s passion-drenched Anna Karenina. Here, the unrequited longing simmers beneath a cool, polished surface of soulless materialism, as the lovelorn wife (the extraordinary Ainour Tourganbaeva) of a Kazakh politician finds herself falling for the upwardly mobile boyfriend of her own niece. If only she had thought to look for love in the far reaches of the Hunger Steppe, she might well have met with a happier end. Except where otherwise noted, all screenings in AFI Fest’s “Showcase on Kazakhstan” take place at ArcLight Hollywood: Chouga, Sun., Nov. 2, 12:30 p.m. and Sat., Nov. 8, noon (at Mann Chinese 6); Native Dancer, Sat., Nov. 1, 12:30 p.m. and Sun., Nov. 9, 12:15 p.m.; Tulpan, Wed., Nov. 5, 9:40 p.m. and Sun., Nov. 9, 3:30 p.m.