In the blue waiting room of an orphanage sits a Kyrgyz woman in a traditional head scarf, while in a nearby dormitory a young boy is awakened and told his mother has finally come to pick him up. As mother and son stride across the playground together, the other children envy his luck. But there’s something inscrutable about the pair: Zhipara (a beautifully careworn Perizat Ermanbaeva) seems more grimly determined than overjoyed at this reunion, after an unexplained 10-year separation. And Uluk (Daniel Daiyerbekov) looks wary, his eyes those of an old man, set deep and sad in his little-boy face.
This is the quietly arresting beginning to Russian director Elizaveta Stishova’s Kyrgyzstan-set “Suleiman Mountain,” a mixture of sober, ethnographic study and high melodrama that compels even when it doesn’t quite convince. Perhaps it’s Stishova’s outsider point of view that places the film indefinably but unmistakably apart from the recent run of Kyrgyz festival hits, such as Aktan Arym Kubat’s “Centaur” and Temirbek Birnazarov’s “Night Accident.” Certainly, the interweaving of myth, morality and masculinity is not as deft here as in those masterful allegories, but the full-throated dramatics of “Suleiman Mountain” may make it an easier entry point into an immensely rewarding national canon that can seem, to the uninitiated, forbiddingly arcane.
Zhipara is a faith healer who draws her “powers” from strange whipping and retching rituals performed in the crags of the eponymous sacred mountainside. Bringing Uluk home to the squalid, tumbledown apartment in which she lives, she tells him not to worry, that his father, Karabas (a roaring, elemental Asset Imangaliev), will return to make the family whole again — and yes, he’s as strong and noble as the Kyrgyz gods of old. But when Karabas shows up in a wheezing caravan truck with his pregnant second wife, Turganbyubyu (Turgunai Erkinbekova), in tow, it’s immediately clear he’s no hero.
Karabas is a gambler, a cheat and a thief. In fact he’s such an irredeemably unpleasant scoundrel, and such a terrible father to his newly restored son (whom Turganbyubyu suspects of not actually being his son) that it makes it difficult to invest in Zhipara’s plan to inveigle herself back into his life. Of course there is the social standing she gains from having her husband and her child back with her (even if there’s another wife involved — polygamy is technically illegal in Kyrgyzstan but relatively common in some communities). But mostly, Zhipara comes across as among the most capable of women ever to waste herself on a worthless man.
And so mostly we feel a sort of uncomprehending outrage for Zhipara and Uluk as they negotiate Karabas’ mercurial weather-system of moods. Zhipara performs her healing ritual on the ailing mother of the local mayor and is rewarded with money that Karabas gambles away in a seedy bingo den. Uluk is given a remote-control helicopter, for which Karabas finally gets around to buying batteries, only to crash it before the boy even gets a chance to play with it. The moments of harmony are rare, with only one enjoyable extended con-trick sequence pointing to how the unlikely foursome might be able to live together.
As a result, “Suleiman Mountain” works best when it’s giving us an unvarnished look at the uneasy coexistence of the mystical, superstitious past with the venal, grasping present, and the hardscrabble lives of the modern Kyrgyz underclass, as captured in Tudor Vladimir Panduru’s understatedly gritty camerawork. It is less successful tracking the rather soap-operatic interactions between the makeshift family, especially one so riven with deceit and uncertainty. Is Zhipara a charlatan or a real healer? Is Uluk really her child? Does the sweet-natured, worried-looking Uluk himself know?
All the while, the influence the hulking mountain exerts over their destinies remains unclear. It’s perhaps here that the strain shows most in Alisa Khmelnitskaya’s screenplay, which never quite knits theme and plot together tightly enough to satisfy. There are winning performances, especially from Ermanbaeva and Daiyerbekov, but the real human motivations behind their mechanistic behaviors remain frustratingly opaque. “Home is where you are beloved,” Zhipara tells Uluk, but despite the desperate craving for family that clearly drives her, there’s precious little affection: She wants to be with Karabas, but surely not because she loves him, and even her relationship to Uluk seems less devoted than functional. Perhaps that’s ultimately the obscure point that Stishova, in her ambitiously cross-cultural debut feature, wants to make: Kyrgyz patriarchy may be as terrifyingly indifferent to the struggles of its womenfolk as the mountain is to the human dramas playing out on its slopes, but still nothing is as truly unknowable as the contents of the human heart.