There’s something about family life in a yurt that seems to have touched off a sympathetic nerve worldwide, given the number of recent films on the subject. Scripter-helmer Ermek Tursunov’s wordless debut feature, “Kelin,” is a stylish example of the genre, fitting snugly between “Tulpan” and “Native Dancer” with its suitors, shamans and one mother-in-law, all set on the isolated Kazakh steppes. Beautifully shot, amusingly written and handsomely produced, “Kelin” will draw auds looking for a blast of exotica, though there’s not much else underneath the heavy fur coats. Fest play and ancillary should be strong.
The time is the second century A.D., but it could probably be much more recent. Two suitors bid for the hand of a young woman (Gulsharat Zhubyeva); naturally, the man with the most money (Kuandyk Kystykbaev) gets to take her home, though she favors the more attractive loser (Erzhan Nurymbet).
Back at his yurt, hubby presents his new bride to his shaman mother (Turakhan Sadykova) and younger brother (Nurzhan Turganbaev), and they all get down to business herding cattle. But then the failed suitor returns, and in a nicely staged fight in the snow, reminiscent of artistic martial-arts films, the husband is killed. Rituals are performed, and the mother-in-law passes the young widow on to her adolescent son, ensuring the family gets their money’s worth (“Kelin” literally means daughter-in-law”).
Hesitant scenes of the hormonally developing boy taking what is now his generate chuckles, but also accrue sympathy for both characters. The young woman, however, is not happy with the situation, and when her husband’s killer returns, she’s inclined to follow her heart.
The film’s fascination lies less in the primal tale than in the descriptive trappings of the characters’ lives, replete with pagan rites and instinctive urges untempered by psychologizing. By not drawing attention to the fact that no one speaks other than through occasional grunts, Tursunov (scripter on Rustem Abdrashev’s “Patchwork Quilt”) saves “Kelin” from the silliness of so many prehistoric pics; he knows a struggle of wills can be even more effective without words.
While the lensing can feel indebted to smallscreen nature programs, the visuals are never less than attractive, and crane shots provide a thrilling sweep nicely balanced with equally engrossing moments of quiet detail. Music is used sparingly, with the otherworldly sounds of Kazakh throat-singing spiking the sense of a story outside of time.