October 15, 2008
A transposition of Leo Tolstoy's Anna Karenina to the modern day city of Almaty, Darezhan Omirbaev's Chouga revisits the urban alienation of Killer to create a spare and charming, if diluted exposition on the role of fate, materialism, and moral bankruptcy in post-Soviet society. The idea of an economic-driven natural selection is foretold in an early episode in the film, as a shy film student from the steppes, Tiburon (played by Jasulan Asauov, the fragile boy in Omirbaev's earlier film, Kardiogramma), waits to present a small bouquet of flowers to Altynai (Ainour Sapargali) at a campus lounge, only to be upstaged by the appearance of the self-confident Ablai (Aidos Sagatov) bearing an ever larger bouquet in tow to present for her birthday, before whisking her away to a party in his sports car. Meanwhile, Altynai's father, now seemingly assured of his daughter's impending engagement to the wealthy Ablai, turns his attention to his unraveling domestic life, inviting his younger sister Chouga (Alnur Turgambayeva), the wife of an influential politician, for a visit from the capital city of Astana in the hopes that she will help to patch things over with his wife after a martial indiscretion. However, Chouga's appearance in their lives soon proves to be disruptive, dislodging Altynai as the newfound object of Ablai's fickle affection, succumbing to their mutual attraction, and with it, an aimless life of separation and exile from her family. Omirbaev's distilled aesthetic - oneiric sequences that equally allude to internal conflict and creative impulse, disembodied framing of hands and feet that evoke Robert Bresson's cinema, and elliptical, de-dramatized action - proves especially suited in reflecting the sterility of the city's cultural transformation through the image of lavish, but idiosyncratically forbidding spaces represented by the cosmopolitan world of opera houses and luxury passenger trains (in one insightful shot, the apparent sameness of Ablai and Chouga's residence is differentiated only by the sight of the Eiffel Tower in the background). Juxtaposed against Tiburon's recurring idyllic dream, the image suggests a figurative return to nature, and implicitly, to an essential identity.