Three orphaned siblings fight a corrupt bureaucracy in order to keep a roof over their heads in “The Owners,” the small but scrappy third feature from prize-winning Kazakh writer-director Adilkhan Yerzhanov (“Realtor.”) A remake of sorts of his previous effort, “Constructors,” this highly stylized, blackly comic low-budget drama is a biting piece of social criticism that eventually goes over the top and enters Grand Guignol territory. The pic’s world premiere as a last-minute addition to the Cannes Special Screenings lineup should serve as a launchpad for further fest play.
All Yerzhanov’s films deal with the same theme: the difficulties surrounding property ownership in Kazakhstan and the challenges facing those who can’t afford a home. Both “Constructors” and “The Owners” use the same embattled family (Yerbolat Yerzhan and Aliya Zainalova reprise their roles), albeit in slightly different situations, to provide an acerbic picture of homelessness and lawlessness. Some may argue that the poverty aesthetic of the pithier, black-and-white “Constructors” rendered the message more poignant than does the bloody, rambling excess of “The Owners.” Nevertheless, both films bluntly convey the fact that the poor and oppressed have little recourse to justice, particularly when rich and powerful make — and arbitrarily change — the rules to suit themselves.
When 25-year-old John (Aidyn Sakhaman); his teenage brother, Yerbol (Yerzhan); and their ailing, epileptic 12-year-old sister, Aliya (Zainalova), can no longer pay for their apartment in the former Kazakh capital of Almaty, they try to claim the small house their mother left them in a remote village. But Zhuba (Bauyrzhan Kaptagai), who is the thuggish, alcoholic brother of the police chief (Nurbek Mukushev), and who has been living there illegally for the past 10 years, refuses to give it up without a fight.
In Yerzhanov’s wild East, possession seems to be more than nine-tenths of the law, and to whom one is related is even more important. Although John, who has a criminal record, tries his best to protect and provide for his siblings, he proves no match for the forces stacked against him. The police hear his complaint but turn a blind eye when Zhuba beats him bloody; the heartless staff at the housing commission (neatly represented as faceless hands in a window) insist that they cannot look into his case for at least two months; and the man who sold him a car on credit chooses this moment to collect the balance.
After John is hauled off to jail on trumped-up charges, Yerbol finds himself in a situation that quickly deteriorates from bad to much, much worse. Unlike “Constructors,” where the plucky lad valiantly (and peacefully) strives to overcome the stream of new obstacles placed in his path, “The Owners” finds Yerbol making a series of bad decisions that ultimately result in a bloody massacre, played out in a style of grotesque absurdity. Yerzhanov’s point seems to be that, when people are faced with ongoing cruelty and adversity, the worm will eventually turn.
As in “Constructors,” the helmer works in a style that resembles early Aki Kaurismaki. The laconic performers are mostly poker-faced, except for Kaptagai’s laughing, leering villain. The mise-en-scene favors fixed-angle long takes in which the characters move in and out of the shot, while creative sound effects work fires the viewers’ imagination.