Tuesday, October 13, 2009


The most pleasant surprise of this month’s Fall Cinema 100 series is the wonderfully realized drama “Tulpan” from Kazakhstan. Set in rugged desert terrain, all dry and dusty and windy, the movie captures the life of a herding family with a refreshing sense of realism. It also, perhaps a bit oddly, reminded me of “Star Wars.”

Asa, the main character, lives in a yurt with his sister Samal, her husband Ondas, and their three children. Ondas is tough and strong and devoted to this rugged life even though he is deeply troubled by a high rate of stillborn lambs. Asa is different. He’s slight of build and a dreamer. The setting they live in reminded me constantly of the planet Tatooine from “Star Wars.” And Asa with his eyes forever peering over the horizon resembles Luke Skywalker.

In an early and infectious scene, Asa and his buddy Boni travel across the desert in a truck. They groove and bop to the strains of the reggae classic “Rivers of Babylon.” Asa is especially happy as he hangs off the back of the truck, wind blowing in his face. It’s a wondrous expression of freedom. They are travelling home after almost meeting Tulpan, the girl of Asa’s dreams.

Tulpan (meaning Tulip) is an interesting character. Or rather she’s more of an apparition than a flesh and blood girl. Asa has never seen her face, never really met her. She’s like a hope, a dream, something keeping him going. The scene where he goes to visit her is beautifully mysterious with Asa remaining outside of the door to her home, gently speaking with her, encouraging her to show him her face. She never does.

She’s like a dream that keeps him tied to the desert life. The only available girl left in the region. She counterbalances the pull he feels from his best buddy to adventure and toward the “big city” that is out there, somewhere. This herding life may not be for him, he knows instinctively. And it’s just too depressing having to gaze upon more and more dead baby lambs every day.

I won’t go into specifics, but there are two scenes that cause Asa’s head to spin and that pull him in different directions, seemingly pulling him apart. There’s a scene between him and Tulpan’s mother that is almost cruel in the bluntness of the reality it forces him to face. And then there’s a remarkable scene involving the difficult birth of a lamb that asks him to reassess his place in this parched, life or death land.

“Tulpan” ends with Asa and Boni again travelling across the desert by truck and again listening to “Rivers of Babylon.” But now the joyful sense of freedom has left Asa. He sulks, torn between loss of hope and new-found responsibility. He’s an image of a Luke Skywalker who had never been permitted to see the princess’s face.

The movie’s dusty realism frequently fills the screen with pleasures. The desert has always been a highly photogenic landscape and never more so than here, especially when howling winds envelope the characters in swirls of blowing sand. And the images of children at play are delightfully vivid.

I wish more movies would realize – as “Tulpan” does – that nothing is more magical than simple moments such as a young girl dealing with the stress and boredom of her existence by singing, beautifully and loudly. The scenes here of children singing have a way of making the characters – and us – forget all of life’s hardships.

“Tulpan” has not been rated, but is suitable for all ages. It screens at the Grand Theater on Thursday, October 22 at 3:00 and 5:30.

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