The hulking figure who lumbers through Zhanna Issabayeva’s debut feature “Karoy” is an unfamiliar screen presence: A con man with no brains, a bully with no power lust, Azat feels like he is attuned to the dusty landscape, traveling around begging, borrowing or stealing from those who can least afford it. Issabayeva makes no moral judgments on her fascinatingly opaque character. She merely follows him through the barren stretches and small towns of Kazakhstan. Pic ultimately founders at the end, its ironies supplanted by unbridled emotionalism. Still, engrossing foray into a largely unknown country (Borat notwithstanding) is worth the trip.
Aseemingly amoral being, Azat (Yerzhan Tusupov) exploits people with no apparent regard for their pain or survival. In a culture with extended family ties, Azat chooses those weak relatives who know him well enough not to trust him but not well enough to have learned how to resist his various cons.
Outside the simple home of a hard-working distant cousin, he tearfully pleads for money for his sick mother, swearing to return the savings the man has painstakingly accumulated. As Azat walks off with the loot, sounds of the cousin’s wife’s wails and curses accompany him into the distance.
Tyro helmer Issabayeva, founder and president of Kazakhstan’s Sun Production, captures the unadorned primitiveness and beauty of the land and its people. All the inhabitants of whatever timeless corner of the country the camera wanders into seem similar in their peasant-like stoicism. The occasional modern-day cell phone or pickup truck are absorbed into the unchanged landscape but don’t transform it.
Within the confines of pic’s impressively austere compositional style, psychology proves inadequate to explain Azat, in whom something was clearly left out, though not the ability to mimic normality.
Outside of the confines of civility, however, Azat loses his edge. In a poker game in a dark fetid room (players piggishly swilling liquor and gnawing on chicken legs), our hero and his money are soon parted. Among the brutish, jeering low-lifes who take sly pleasure in their sadism, Azat stands apart, seemingly incapable of enjoyment.
But he’s not incapable of sadism. At a wedding, Azat spitefully claims to have slept with the bride which causes the groom to lay into his wife mercilessly. While Azat doesn’t stick around to enjoy the fruits of his malice, the viewer is made to pause and watch the violence he has wrought.
The last section of the film dramatically reverses the unemotionality of the rest. Azat, severely beaten by several unidentifiable victims, is carted home, where he is indeed awaited by a sick mother. The coolly observed scenes of Azat weeping copiously at his dying mother’s side leave the viewer at a loss, as if the pure spectacle of an otherwise unfeeling man who loves his mum were profoundly ironic enough to carry pic’s prolonged finale.
Tech credits are solid; Renat Kossay’s widescreen HD lensing resonant but never gratuitously pictorial.