Under a lowering sky, in front of a makeshift movie screen hastily erected on a Kazakh hillside, a loose-limbed, unkempt young man performs a shambolically graceful version of Gene Kelly’s “Singin’ in the Rain” for an audience of one rapt viewer. This scene is Adhilkan Yerzhanov’s “Yellow Cat” in miniature: a film that apes its influences with such infectious, idiosyncratic enthusiasm that it ends up entirely its own, lovely little thing. The fabulously distinctive Kazakh filmmaker’s most accessible and purely enjoyable film to date is steeped in offbeat cinephilia, ultimately operating as a cock-eyed tribute to Terrence Malick’s “Badlands,” an outlaw-lovers-on-the-run tale that meshes sly genre acumen with sharp social satire to deliver a droll and delightful riff on an age-old story: lovable misfits pursuing untenable dreams in a world hardwired against dreamers.
A lonesome figure traipses across the featureless Kazakh steppe. Even from this distance, he looks odd, dressed in the trenchcoat and fedora of a ’50s gumshoe. Kermek (a sublimely deadpan Azamat Nigmanov), who gained his erratic love of movies at an orphanage where he was only ever allowed to watch one hour of any given film, has been released early from prison for good behavior. Now, he’s returning to the tiny (fictional) no-horse town in which many of Yerzhanov’s films take place, where he trudges into a small, drab store and applies for a job.
To the slack-jawed incomprehension of his two interviewers, when he is asked for his qualifications, Kermek launches into a little pantomime of poses and attitudes, finally explaining that it’s his impression of Alain Delon. “You know, from ‘Le Samouraï,'” he adds helpfully. There is something slightly miraculous, and deeply hilarious about the gap between Jean Pierre Melville’s 1967 classic of cool and this ugly little room in the dusty middle of Central Asia being suddenly closed to nothing in the unlikely person of a Kazakh ex-con in a hat, but it’s an incongruity that inexhaustibly powers the beguiling and funny “Yellow Cat” through to its sweetly fatalistic, melancholic end.
Kermek gets the job — not, one suspects, because of his resemblance to a certain French heartthrob, whatever he may think. But he is then abruptly fired, at the behest of a local corrupt cop (the rural police come out of this no better than they did Yerzhanov’s scathing crime thriller “A Dark Dark Man”) who, like everyone around here, is in thrall to gangster Zhambas (Sanjar Madi). Ridiculous of hairline and high-pitched of voice, Zhambas himself is soon shown to be just a low-level lackey for a higher boss, but then in Yerzhanov’s world, corruption extends all the way up the social hierarchy; it’s only downstream that one ever has a chance of encountering someone decent.
Perhaps Kermek is that hero. Certainly, his latent hopes of escaping this life of crime to pursue his wonky vision of a movie theater in the barren hills take on new urgency when he visits a brothel and falls in love. Eva (Kamila Nugmanova) is a red-haired prostitute whom Kermek instantly adores, partly because that’s what is supposed to happen between these archetypes, and partly because, unlike everyone else, she has heard of “Le Samouraï.” And unlike even Kermek himself, she has watched it all the way through, so she can tell him how it ends (though we never see her do so and maybe it’s better if Kermek never finds out). Soon this benign Bonnie and this courteous, corny Clyde are on the run from Zhambas, the cops and Baldyr, the gang boss, with nothing to their names but a gun, a stolen box of mob money and the amusingly misbegotten notion that movie theaters in remote rural locations make money hand over fist.
Yerzhanov has evolved a recognizable, inventively absurdist aesthetic by now, and DP Yerkinbek Ptyraliyev’s droll imagery is perfectly on that wavelength, equal parts Malick and Aki Kaurismaki, always sitting as far from the action as can be, while still delivering the maximum hit of humor or heart or, occasionally, sudden violence. The images revel in the raw-boned beauty of Kazakhstan’s scrubby grasslands and far-off feathery mountainsides, especially at dusk, when they frame Eva, with her cloud of hair, and the stonefaced Kermek wordlessly against a twilit sky: a Kazakh Clara Bow and her Buster Keaton beau. And the soundtrack, when its not directly referencing the Carl Orff music used in “Badlands” is another pleasure, with Alim Zairov and Ivan Sintsov’s score occasionally taking brief, unexpectedly hip detours into ’80s-style synthpop.
Kermek does pratfalls to amuse Eva. Gangsters squabble like children about movies. And henchmen deliver (unexpectedly dead-on) Robert De Niro impressions. But Yerzhanov tempers the sweetness and the silliness with just the right amount of sad, because although it loves the movies unreservedly, the film is also about the gorgeous ill-advisedness of placing all your faith and investing all your dreams in a beam of light. In “Yellow Cat,” cinephilia enriches, enlarges and beautifully en-weirdens life, but it cannot save it.