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July, Kaïrat, Kardiogramma, Killer, The Road, Chouga

Kaïrat, 1992

Assetov A lone, mischievous village boy (Jasulan Asauov) unproductively roams around the vast, desolate steppes of Kazakhstan scrawling infinite parallel lines around the exterior walls of a disused way station before walking up to the side of the railroad tracks at the sight of an approaching train, picking up a nearby rock, and inexplicably hurling the projectile onto an arbitrary compartment, consequently breaking the window of an unsuspecting passenger who instinctively turns away from the dislodged shards resulting from the impact. A cut to the film title reveals the identity of the random target as Kaïrat (Kaïrat Mahmetov), a young man from a rural province traveling to the city of Almaty to complete his university studies. The strangely coincidental and understatedly whimsical episode provides an appropriate preface to plight of the hapless protagonist who is subsequently shown taking his final examinations while unpropitiously being seated in between identical twin siblings passing crib notes to each other. Caught in the act of relaying a note between the sisters - an equally ironic turn of events that recalls the professor's earlier ethically reprehensible exchange of secret admirer messages with a student at the back of the classroom - Kaïrat fails his examinations. Forced to find another avenue of employment while waiting out a year to retake the institute exams, Kaïrat remains in Almaty, retains his shared dorm room accommodations, and enters vocational training at a bus driver school where his instructor casually teases him on his apparent indifference to having a girlfriend. With the seed of romantic pursuit inextricably planted in Kaïrat's thoughts, the adrift and fanciful young man begins to occupy his time in search of the object of his affection, eventually setting his sights on an attractive young woman with a straw hat at a movie theater, a genial and independent-minded train stewardess named Indira (Indira Jeksembaeva).

Fueled by the creative autonomy afforded by the Soviet-era economic reforms of perestroika (that also led to the emergence of the Kazakh new wave during the latter half of the 1980s), mathematician and film theorist turned filmmaker Darezhan Omirbaev creates an elegantly distilled, poetic, and humorously self-reflexive semi-autobiographical portrait of aimlessness, alienation, sentimental crossroads, and the strange, bewildering process of maturation in Kaïrat. Influenced by the visual precision and narrative economy Robert Bresson and Alfred Hitchcock, Omirbaev achieves a distinctiveness and singularity in his spare and dedramatized cinema through an acute sense of landscape, idiosyncratic (and subtly recursive) fusion of dreams and subconscious reality, muted, deadpan humor, and idiosyncratic integration of incongruous, off-camera diegetic external sounds - the clinking of dropped, loose change; the slow dripping of water; the muffled, low fidelity echoing broadcast of a train station public address system; ticking clocks; and the monotonic chirping of an unseen bird - in order to presage narrative ellipses or transitional states of consciousness. Omirbaev further incorporates episodes of truncation - repeated walk-outs during film screenings with Indira, an aborted Ferris wheel ride (that recalls an earlier scene on a film involving two lovers), and a procrastinated reckoning with the dorm bully, Jan (Talgat Assetov) - that further reflect Kaïrat's own figuratively stalled life adventure. In the end, it is this existential displacement that is reflected in Omirbaev's familiar, recurring filmic image of decorative mobiles: an indelible reminder of the human imperative to propel life's fragile, dynamic motion and the personal need to find one's place of balance within its complex, interrelated structure.

© Acquarello 2004. All rights reserved.

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Kardiogramma, 1995

AsauovIn the rural Soviet-era Kazakh village of Bazarbaï in the Kzylordinskye district, a reticent and impassive boy named Jasulan (Jasulan Asauov) watches his father ride away on horseback into the arid frontier before sneaking into the utility shed, activating the house portable generator, and returning to the living room - past the silent, disapproving gaze of his doting mother in the kitchen - to watch the faint, occasionally distorted black and white image of a Russian language television broadcast. Jasulan's self-indulgent diversion, however, inevitably proves brief as the power abruptly goes out, having been disconnected by his pragmatic father who has unexpectedly returned home to the sound of the noisy, sputtering engine, and dismissively (and amusingly) scolds the boy for wasting scarce fuel "to see naked women". Seemingly plagued with symptoms of chronic inertia (or rather, more appropriately, maternally enabled idleness) - that, as his anxious mother would later surmise, had perhaps evolved from an earlier, under-attended bout of tonsillitis leading to heart disease - Jasulan is accompanied by his mother on a trip to the city of Alma Ata for medical attention where a staff physician obligingly concurs with her overprotective diagnosis, rationalizing that "Kazakh children often have heart disease because we love them too much". Left alone for a month-long period of recuperation in a children's convalescent facility, the sheltered and infinitely curious Jasulan soon finds himself overwhelmingly immersed in the strange culture of Russian-speaking children, competitive team sports, bullying adolescents, and attractive staff nurses - in particular, a compassionate resident nurse named Gula (Gulnara Dusmatova) - and is invariably marked by the seemingly mundane, yet character-building and illuminating experience.

Darezhan Omirbaev creates an elegantly distilled, understatedly humorous, and indelibly poetic portrait of estrangement, awakening, maturation, and self-discovery in Kardiogramma. Juxtaposing the barren and austere, yet intimate and nurturing environment of the remote peasant village with the populous and always bustling, yet alienating and oppressively institutionalized milieu of the state-run treatment facility, the film establishes the underlying paradox between geographic isolation and communal (and familial) intimacy, densely populated environments and suppressive, captive isolation. By illustrating fostered group activities and imposed interactions that invariably degenerate into social stratification, aggressive and often violent (although, at times, unintentionally hilarious) personal competition, cruel pranks, and arbitrary exclusion, Omirbaev captures the inherent myth in the cultivation of cultural dissociation towards implicit conformity as a means to achieving camaraderie and (an albeit fragile) unity. In the end, disillusioned by the emotional desolation of impersonal institution, Jasulan perpetrates a bittersweet, silent revolt against his tantalizing, but bewildering brave new world - once again, guided by his fickle heart - searching for a way to return to a humble paradise lost.

© Acquarello 2004. All rights reserved.

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Tueur à gages, 1998

AssetovAn early episode in Killer shows a highly distinguished and mild-mannered research director of the Institute of Mathematics named Professor Kassymov hopelessly lost in the labyrinth of a broadcasting station office building, unable to find the main exit after completing a taped guest interview for a radio program entitled In Your Own Time. The understatedly humorous episode proves to be a subtle reflection on the uncertainty of life and seemingly inescapable economic recession in post-Soviet era Kazakhstan as well, an atmosphere that is reinforced by the film's opening sequence of a slow motion, monochromatic shot of dour, window shopping patrons navigating through the narrow, crowded pedestrian alley of an open market on a brisk winter day. Professor Kassymov's chauffeur, Marat (Talgat Assetov), having driven his employer back to the institute, has been given the afternoon off and use of the staff vehicle in order to transport his wife, Aijan (Roksana Abouova) and newborn son home from the hospital. However, the happy occasion would soon turn somber when Marat attempts to catch a glimpse of his son while deciding on an appropriate name for the infant and inadvertently causes a collision with a car that has stopped for a red light at an intersection. Unable to cover the expenses for the repair of the two automobiles, Marat decides to pay a visit to his older sister Saoule in order to seek financial advice, but is derailed from his intent when he walks into a marital squabble stemming from his brother-in-law, Serik's realization that Saoule has been swindled of the family savings in an investment trust scheme by a group of disreputable businessmen. Returning home, Marat discovers that the aggrieved motorist has dropped by unannounced, accompanied by two hired thugs. Subjected to intimidation and physical violence, Marat is compelled to borrow money from a ruthless mobster in order to pay for the repairs, and is unwittingly inducted into the corruption of a flourishing underworld in the nascent free market economy of Kazakhstan.

Darezhan Omirbaev presents a spare and muted, yet compelling and incisive account of despair, rootlessness, materialism, and amorality in Killer. Omirbaev uses subtly modulated recurring imagery in order create an environment of circularity and entrapment that reflect Marat's existential dilemma which, in turn, provides a broader commentary on the spiritual and moral crisis resulting from the country's economic turmoil following the collapse of the Soviet Union: the rearview mirror shots reflecting an impassive Marat, his repeated visits to a tawdry bar in order to establish contact with the mobster, the decorative bird mobile in the bar that is repeated in the image of birds in sudden flight near an aqueduct, the inferred acts of violence that occur off-camera. Note Marat's two dream sequences on the roof of a building (both of which occur after he is physically assaulted): the first, across from a construction site (that alludes to the nation's economic rebuilding) as he steps onto the ledge, the second, overlooking a busy public square where he awakens before the fall. In the end, what emerges is an innately disturbing portrait that juxtaposes a desire to transcend with the more conventional image of a figurative self-destruction (and perhaps, even murder), a reflection of a lost humanity that has become disconnected from its moral center in a suicidal and nihilistic struggle for economic survival.

© Acquarello 2003. All rights reserved.

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