Two penniless villagers try their luck in the big city in the poetically titled “The Gentle Indifference of the World.” The latest from Kazakh indie helmer Adilkhan Yerzhanov (“The Owners”) once again indicts bureaucratic corruption and abuse of power in the post-Soviet wild East. Despite the titular tip of the hat to French philosopher and existentialist author Albert Camus’ “The Stranger” and references to Paris and Jean-Paul Belmondo, this whimsical, low-budget film is very much of a piece with the director’s previous work. The world premiere in Cannes’ Un Certain Regard lineup should serve as a launch pad for further fest play.
Over the course of six features, Yerzhanov has crafted what one might call a distinctive cinema of poverty that’s serious in its themes and playful in its design. His slyly humorous, stylized minimalism, the miserablism of his characters and their laconic, poker-faced acting style all recall the early films of Aki Kaurismaki. And like early Kaurismaki, Yerzhanov is working at a rapid pace; his previous feature, “Night God,” premiered in competition at the Moscow Film Festival just last month.
But Yerzhanov’s repeated themes (that the poor and oppressed have little recourse to justice, particularly when the rich and powerful make the rules to suit themselves) and aesthetics (fixed-angle long takes, striking use of natural landscapes, creative sound effects) felt most fresh and poignant in “Constructors” (2012). Now, with the slenderest of plots, and characters in which the audience barely has a rooting interest, the director is in danger of diminishing returns. Although Yerzhanov tries something new by gussying up the narrative with allusions to French New Wave amour fou and gangster noir, “Gentle Indifference” still feels like a slight knock off of his earlier work.
After her father dies, leaving his rural family heavily in debt, pretty Saltanat (Dinara Baktybayeva) is dispatched by her mother (Kulzhamilya Belzhanova) to visit her uncle Haim (Yerken Gubashev) in Almaty and ask for his help. She’s followed by her indigent admirer, the laborer Kuandyk (Kuandyk Dussenbaev), who initially seems a bit of a buffoon but is willing to do anything for Saltanat.
Kuandyk finds work with disabled fruit-and-vegetable vendor Aman (Teoman Khos) but soon runs into trouble when he tangles with the henchmen of greengrocer mafioso Zambeke (Bauyrzhan Kaptagay). Meanwhile, Saltanat refuses her scheming uncle’s plan to pimp her out to rich businessman Bayandyk (Talgat Sydykbekov) and winds up washing floors at a medical clinic. But their meager joint income can’t keep Saltanat’s mother out of debtor’s prison.
Lacking options, both Saltanat and Kuandyk (the epitome of a film noir fall guy) make a series of bad decisions, and wind up betraying those that have been closest to them. And, as in Yerzhanov’s other films, eventually the worm turns. After the Grand Guignol excess at the end of “The Owners,” the helmer’s restraint here is very welcome and the finale no less powerful.
Working again with long-time production designer Yermek Utegenov, Yerzhanov makes memorable images and creative connections with the simplest of means. For instance, when Kuandyk uses a delivery cart and his childlike chalk drawings to pretend he is flying Saltanat to Paris, the effect is magical. And then there’s the recurring image of a white flower stained with red blood, a metaphor for the fate of the naïve protagonists. Even Saltanat’s switch from a red dress to a blue one (her only wardrobe in the entire film) neatly connotes the cold realities of her life in the city.