The scenery looks great but the people wandering around it are far less interesting in “Ulzhan,” another tale of a westerner exorcising his demons in exotic Asia with the help of a local babe. Veteran German helmer Volker Schlondorff hit the existential road 16 years ago with the interesting “Voyager” but here, tied to a very Gallic script by fellow vet Jean-Claude Carriere, seems to be just punching the clock. Beautifully lensed, widescreen yarn should attract some co-travelers (especially in Europe) who are drawn to cinematic travelogues, but auds in search of the real deal shouldn’t pack their bags.
Determined-looking Charles Simon (Philippe Torreton), whom we later learn is a teacher from Paris, runs out of gas soon after crossing by car into Kazakhstan. So he simply starts walking across the limitless, scrubby steppes, despite offers of a lift. In a Wild West-like oil-boom town, he has some rough sex with a Russian bargirl (Olga Landina) in the john and then starts walking again.
After sleeping by an oilfield, he’s hawled in by the manager (assistant director Marek Brodski) and later released when his bonafides check out. But at the French consulate in Astana, he seems uninterested even in getting official identity papers. He then starts walking again.
Charles, per production notes, is “looking for a way to heal his wounded soul.” Luckily, he comes across a young Kazakh woman, Ulzhan (Ayanat Ksenbai, from “Nomads”), who teaches French at a village school. After he buys a horse from her family, she decides to drop everything and ride with him across the, uh, limitless, scrubby steppes.
Charles just wants to be alone but, despite brief separations, Ulzhan can’t be shaken off — even turning up in the middle of nowhere to rescue him and his horse from a fierce dust storm. The duo are then joined, on and off, by a hippie shaman westerner, Shakuni (David Bennent, the boy in Schlondorff’s 1979 “The Tin Drum”), who says he “sells words.”
An hour in, Carriere’s script finally provides a smidgeon of background on Charles who, it seems, is journeying to distant Khan Tengri mountain, a shamanistic holy ground, in search of gold. Ulzhan isn’t convinced, and rightly so as the pic wanders to its finale.
Having very little to create a character from, Torreton clenches his jaw and simply looks determined. Ksenbai provides some sunshine, but not much believability, as his saddle companion, while Bennent throws himself into the role of the weirdo westerner without looking as if he believes any of the dialogue he’s been given. Example: “Can I join you? I feel lonely.”
On a tech level, pic is flawless, with standout lensing by German d.p. Tom Faehrmann (“The Miracle of Bern”) in both lighting and composition, portraying a timeless culture through which the oil business threads its contempo tentacles. But there’s more drama, character conflict and human commentary in one reel of “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre” than all 10 of “Ulzhan.”