The failures of post-Soviet Kyrgyz democratization come to roost in a remote village in helmer Aktan Arym Kubat’s third feature, “The Light Thief.” This slim parable unfolding in short vignettes is stylistically much of a piece with earlier work “The Adopted Son” and “The Chimp” credited to his Russian name, Aktan Abdykalykov. Completed before the April 2010 popular uprising against the deeply corrupt regime of Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiyev (who, with his cronies, looted the country and exploited the people), the tragicomic drama is sure to travel as a fest item but has limited distribution possibilities beyond highly specialized outlets.
Good-natured electrician “Mr. Light” (Arym Kubat) lives with his wife and four daughters in an impoverished burg in the south of the republic and dreams of harnessing wind power to provide cheaper energy. He’s a softie who tampers with meters for pensioners unable to pay their bills and rescues small boys from big trees.
Conflict appears in the form of greedy urban politician Bezkat (Askat Sulaimanov), who wants to sell the villagers’ land to the Chinese. Although the village elders are forewarned, they’re unable to stop him from installing his thuggish relative Mansur (Stanbek Toichubaev) as mayor and sidelining dissenting voices.
Some sequences have a captivating visual beauty, as when the protag’s wife bathes him in a small metal tub, while others, such as the horseback sport of kok boru (goat grabbing) and the erotic performances staged inside a festive yurt for visiting Chinese businessmen, fascinate for their sheer otherness. The various episodes ultimately add up to more than a sum of their parts, even if during the process of unfolding, some are considerably less gripping than others.
While not as hard-hitting as other socially critical films, pic can be read as commentary on the multitude of problems (rampant corruption, nepotism, stagnant economy) Kyrgyzstan faces on its way to democratization. Considering the West’s lack of knowledge about Central Asia, however, this won’t be obvious to every viewer.
Helmer Arym Kubat is aces as the protag, his expressive face and body language making dialogue superfluous. Though Sulaimanov is a tad under-nuanced as the villain, the distaff side of the supporting cast makes a strong impression.
While pic’s pacing is Asian, the tech credits have a Western art-film polish typical of its many Euro co-producing countries.