This review was corrected April 29, 2003.
An otherworldly, agreeably menacing tale of amnesia and industrial intrigue in Central Asia, “Shimkent Hotel” is an indie oddity with atmosphere to burn. Simultaneously exotic on the visual plane and bizarre on the narrative front, pic deserves wide fest exposure and marks multi-hyphenate Charles de Meaux as a talent to watch. Film went out on limited release in Gaul April 23.
In Kazakhstan, a French official (Yann Collette) calls in a neurologist (Thibault de Montalembert) to the title dump to help a baby-faced Frenchman (Melville Poupaud) who can’t recall his name or how he got there. Time stretches out like taffy as the young amnesia victim — whose name is Alex — struggles to recall his recent, presumably shocking, adventures.
Gradual probing leads to flashbacks in which Alex and his young associates, Caroline (Caroline Ducey) and Romain (Romain Duris), purchase and attempt to operate an aluminum foundry built in the days of the former Soviet Union. Realizing they’re in over their heads, the naive, would-be tycoons try to drive to presumed safety in Pakistan, via the Afghan mountains. The catalyst for Alex’s amnesia is revealed at tale’s end, unspooling with a wallop and capped by a dreamy, memorable denouement at which bulk of pic only hints.
Blown up to eerie effect from analogue video, pic was lensed in Kazakhstan, Kirghizstan, Uzbekistan and Tadjikistan. Scrubby, desolate landscapes contribute to an overall feel that’s languid and mysterious, nervous yet spacey. Scenes in the factory — actually built by a major French firm in the mid-’70s — are eye-popping in their combo of the decrepit and grandiose.
Haunting, subtle sound design is perfectly complemented by songs of the steppes and an arrestingly distinctive interpretation of “I Fought the Law and the Law Won.”