Heartrending is too mild a word to describe “Nagima,” an unblinking look at the vulnerable social position of single women in Kazakhstan. Working in a style that recalls the lucid observation and technical precision of Romanian cinema, but adding a strain of Central Asian lyricism, maverick helmer Zhanna Issabayeva depicts her protags’ economic and emotional deprivations with a somberness that builds to a shocking, stupendous finale. “Nagima’s” gala world premiere at Busan will hopefully cement Issabayeva as a talent going from strength to strength, and catapult this latest accomplishment to other major festivals.
Issabeyeva’s fourth feature has much in common with Georgia’s recent festival hit “In Bloom,” as both films depict the constricted lives of young women from former Soviet states still in the grip of die-hard conservatism and male dominance; that the protagonists in “Nagima” are parentless and unmarried renders their existence even more unstable. The titular character’s brave struggle to love and be loved in the face of constant rejection by society invests her with poignant humanity, her debilitating sense of helplessness serving to render her behavior in the tour de force ending all the more unforgettable.
A 13-minute, dialogue-free opening sequence follows Nagima (Dina Tukubayeva, mesmerizing) as she wearily makes her way home from her job as a restaurant kitchen hand in the country’s largest city, Almaty. Here she shares a slum apartment with rough-edged sex worker (Galina Pyanova) and pregnant waif Anya (Mariya Nezhentseva), whose bulbous belly threatens to crush her twig-like frame. Anya complains about abnormal pains, and her deteriorating condition causes Nagima much anxiety, severely testing her ability to hold her life together.
Nagima’s material hardship is expressed in a few terse scenes, when her landlord harries her to pay the rent, while her employer shows no qualms about delaying her wages, and she has to plead long and hard with the general-store owner to buy basic food supplies on credit.
At a trim 77 minutes, the narrative unfolds with rigorous economy, never divulging more than what one needs to know about Nagima and Anya’s past, yet still eliciting concern for their plight. It’s only halfway through the film, when Nagima takes a decisive road trip, that one learns about her age, her relationship with Anya, and how Anya got pregnant in the first place, leading to a confrontation at once anticlimactic and devastating. The cruelty of the situation is accentuated by the barren, godforsaken landscape against which it unfolds.
While all tech credits are pro on a thrifty budget, Sayat Zhangazinov’s lensing outstandingly maintains a slow-burning focus on its central character, with limpid, tableau-like medium shots and closeups that render Nagima’s face as gracefully impassive as a Noh mask. With her pursed lips and drooping eyelids, Tukubayeva (who, like Pyanova and Nezhentseva, grew up in an orphanage) connects with the camera magnetically, delivering a minimalist performance that speaks volumes. Music is until the finale, when the traditional stringed instrument used virtually weeps.