If the ancient, landlocked, scantily voweled Central Asian country of Kyrgyzstan gave the 2017 festival circuit one of its more unexpected minor hits with Aktan Arym Kubat’s mesmerizing fable “Centaur,” it looks like it might repeat the feat in 2018 with Temirbek Birnazarov’s “Night Accident.” A hushed, heartsore, wholly immersive story of tentative human connection across a generational gulf, the film, which world premiered in the Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival, fully deserves to take up the baton for this distinctive and exciting national cinema next year. Its deceptive quietude imbues the most banal of incidents — the wrapping of a bandage, the cracking of an egg — with fascination, and lets faces and actions convey the simple but increasingly evocative narrative with almost silent-movie elegance. Like “Centaur,” it proves Kyrgyz cinema’s facility for spinning lyrical, quasi-mythic gold out of everyday straw. Though shot through with a strain of stone-faced humor, it saddens the soul a little, but it’s a wise and soothing sort of sadness: a story about a last chance.
The unlikely hero of this defiantly unheroic tale is referred to mostly as “old man,” occasionally with affection but mostly not, and is played with dignified but forlorn solemnity by Akylbek Abdykalykov (whose last credit was in 1992, in Kubat’s terrifically named “Where Is Your Home, Snail?”). Eking out a meager living as a digger of graves and toilets and other such demeaning tasks, we learn early on he was cuckolded by a local bigwig, who not only stole his wife away, but raised his sons in privilege; they now display nothing but disdain for their real dad. He lives in a scuffed two-room house by a horizon-huge lake. Sometimes he sits at its shores in his eternal Kalpak (the traditional white Kyrgyz hat), playing his accordion to its waters — which gives the often scoreless, spartan soundtrack a couple of offbeat musical interludes.
One night, he loads an ancient shotgun and sets out on his rickety motorcycle with its seldom occupied sidecar, to kill the businessman who took his family. But an accident occurs, and he hits a young woman (Dina Jakob) mysteriously wandering about in the scrubland at night. The old man brings her prone form back to his house, and tends to her wounds, including a leg injury that requires a splint and later, a crutch. The beautiful, dewy-faced bottle blonde might as well be an alien, so oddly does she stand out in her ripped jeans and leather jacket in the dingy, remote surroundings. But the old man treats her with a sort of dazzled, hopeful kindness (that only briefly threatens to turn into something more creepy in a slightly uncomfortable foot-washing scene) and gradually her wariness begins to defrost.
The “old man transfigured by a beautiful, mostly mute young female” theme is a thoroughly exhausted one. But Birnazarov and Nurifa Umuralieva’s screenplay, adapted from a short story by local writer Talip Ibraimov, avoids the staleness of that scenario by paying due attention to the woman as well as the man. We spend time with her when he’s not around, as she hobbles around the drab little house he’s suddenly trying to spruce up, as she handles the gun with amused, practiced ease, and as her instincts lead her to where he hides his small wad of banknotes. Why she stays, even after her leg is healed, remains a mystery until late on, but these little moments indicate that it’s not because she lacks the wit or resourcefulness to be able to get away.
The story on which the film is based refers to her metaphorically as an angel. But there are unmistakable parallels to the mermaid myth too, from the woman’s initial inability to walk, to her reluctance to speak, to a scene in which she goes swimming naked in the lake, her blonde hair glinting silver in the low light. For the old man’s part, he may not “wear white flannel trousers” while walking on the beach, but there’s a lot of TS Eliot’s tragically aging seriocomic Everyman in him. That this Kyrgyzstani Prufrock does get his mermaid, if only for a short time and entirely on her terms, is the greatest satisfaction of the sweet, strange, sad-eyed “Night Accident”: the hope it holds out that even the loneliest among us might experience a fleeting moment or two of connection and grace, before human voices wake us, and we drown.