Strange how it can feel like not a lot happens in a film that features unwanted teen pregnancy, spousal abandonment, mounting debt, a heart attack, a fistfight and a police chase that ends in a car crash. Even stranger that in the case of Aizhana Kassymbek’s “Fire,” the impression of uneventfulness in a story packed with incident is almost entirely a positive thing: Kassymbek’s light, wry touch and her profound affection for the flawed decency of her characters siphon the gloom from what easily could have been a grim, gray social realist Book of Job, leaving behind instead a droll dramedy with a surprisingly tender and even emotional keel.
Bad things have a nasty habit of happening to good people, but cheerfully long-faced family man Tolik (Tulepbergen Baissakalov) is about to get more than his fair share. Pootling down the highway in his little van, delivering bread to small suburban neighborhood stores, Tolik is already, as the film begins, in the kind of debt that requires him to be constantly on his phone negotiating repayment deferrals with friends and creditors. But it’s a mark of the kind of guy he is that most of these conversations are affable, despite being undignified and apologetic in nature, and usually end with the request being granted. This goes double for Tolik’s last stop, at a store run by his best friend Baur (Baurzan Usenov), a hefty sweetheart with a newfound love of Latin dance, who readily agrees to a loan extension and even gives Tolik a couple of bags of groceries on credit.
These, along with a paycheck already almost used up, Tolik brings home to his heavily pregnant wife Altynai (Mansuk Antmuhanbetova), his irascible father (Yerbolat Toguzakov) and his two young daughters. But with additional expenses looming — for family celebrations, college funds and supplies for Altynai’s side-business as a caterer — Tolik’s clan are only one unforeseen occurrence away from potential ruin. The storm duly breaks one afternoon when Tolik’s elder daughter Saule (Adina Bazan) locks herself in the bathroom after realizing the dress her mother wants her to wear that day will no longer close over her swelling belly. This is how a thunderstruck Tolik and Altynai discover that their teenage daughter is pregnant by a high school classmate. Worse still, the cosseted boy’s wealthy parents refuse to acknowledge their son’s involvement, instead insulting Saule’s honesty and accusing her parents of trying to grift them.
The plot as described could be lifted from one of the drearier Romanian New Wave social dramas, but if dourness was the agenda, no one told cinematographer Aigul Nurbulatova. The bright, colorful photography delights equally in humorously framed close-ups of Baissakalov’s striking face, witty compositions that play with symmetry and asymmetry, and in oddly fascinating descriptions of the mechanics of the bread factory, where industrial-grade pistons pound into the dough and conveyor belts tip sticky globs of the stuff into bake tins. Nor did composer Jong Ho Choi get the “heavy drama” memo: His plinky, jaunty score keeps the mood buoyant even when events are taking their weightiest and most consequential turns.
There’s a certain early Jarmusch vibe to much of “Fire,” in that its deceptive filmmaking naiveté actually masks a rather sophisticated experiment in cross-breeding acute social critique and poker-faced character portraiture with a breeziness of tone. And if the result is slight, it is also sweet, skewing away from the overtly absurdist surrealism of Kassymbek’s best-traveled filmmaker compatriot, Adilkhan Yerzhanov, to deliver a rough-hewn, sincere and offbeat debut that somehow in the course of just 82 minutes, finds time for every character’s individual life as well as their collective familial friction.
Kassymbek, the daughter of filmmaker Kanymbek Kassymbekov, takes a story of trial and tribulation and transforms it into an oddly uplifting tale of resilience and optimism. It’s too modest to lay claim to some grand philosophy, but at the same time there is a barmy, generous moral to draw from “Fire,” about being, even in the midst of hardship, thankful for friendships and the love of your family and other blessings we might take for granted the way we do our daily bread. The charming ending sums it all up: When for every step forward you take, life knocks you back two, add a little hip swivel and a shoulder shimmy, and suddenly you’re no longer stumbling, you’re salsaing.