The traditional lifestyle of nomadic sheep herders on the harsh Kazakh steppe provides quietly sensational drama in “Tulpan,” the feature debut of Kazakh-born documaker extraordinaire Sergey Dvortsevoy (“Bread Day,” “Highway,” “In the Dark.”). Engrossing tale of a 20-ish youth who can’t achieve a long-cherished dream of tending his own flock without first acquiring a wife offers fascinating ethnographic detail, gentle humor and spectacular cinematography. Pic copped the top prize in Cannes’ Un Certain Regard section; further kudos and critical acclaim should spur niche arthouse and ancillary similar to that of top-quality exotica such as “The Story of the Weeping Camel” and “Urga.”
Throughout Central Asia, more and more young people are rejecting the hard life of their parents and migrating to cities in search of work. Writer-helmer Dvortsevoy contrasts the lure of modern, metropolitan living with the herders’ fast-vanishing way of life.
Just as he cleverly refrains from really showing the title character, whose imagined charms become all the more potent from never being seen, so, too, does he let the mere concept of the city rep a myriad of meanings for his characters.
The arid area of southern Kazakhstan called Betpak Dala is a place that barely sustains the few remaining humans or their herds of sheep. There, a herdsman can’t hope to survive without a wife to cook, clean and do the wash.
Recently discharged from the Russian navy, endearing protag Asa (Askhat Kuchinchirekov), shares a yurt (a tent house made of skins) with his beautiful older sister Samal (Samal Yeslyamova), laconic brother-in-law Ondas (Ondasyn Besikbasov) and their four rambunctious children.
Asa, boisterous best buddy Boni (Tulepbergen Baisakalov) and Ondas call on the only family in miles with an eligible daughter, the eponymous Tulpan (whose name means “tulip”). Hoping to leave the steppe and go to college, she tells her parents to refuse him, claiming it’s because his ears are too big. A wistfully charming later scene where Boni tries to put Asa’s ears in perspective generates laughs.
The crestfallen Asa finds his dream further deflated when he proves to lack a natural instinct for herding, yet he persists at both courtship and animal husbandry. Pic charts Asa’s learning curve with a pair of extraordinary real-time lamb birthing scenes.
Preserving an organic mix of naturalism and poetry, the helmer manages to make the sounds, smells and simple pleasures of the steppe palpable. Prioritizing authenticity, he reportedly waited a year for the right weather conditions to reshoot scenes of the family striking the yurt.
The entire cast plays convincingly, with adult perfs seemingly living their parts. Family dynamics feel remarkably genuine, probably helped by characters sharing first names with the actors and the casting of a real-life brother and sister as the oldest offspring of Ondas and Samal.
Matching the sterling performers for screen time – and presence – is a veritable menagerie of animals, including camels, horses, donkeys, goats, dogs and kittens. A shot of a bandaged baby camel folded into a motorcycle sidecar while its anxious mother trots and brays nervously in the background is priceless.
Pic has no score, but further highlights the battle between modernity and tradition by opposing Boni’s love for reggae and pop, which he plays loudly on his jeep radio, with folk songs shrilled at equal volume by Asa’s niece Maha (Mahabbat Turganbayeva).
Versatile lensing by Jola Dyleska achieves an Andrei Tarkovsky-like majesty with striking landscape scenes and moving intimacy inside the yurt. The rest of the tech credits are thoroughly pro.