Tulpan is a gem of a discovery, one that deserves all the adulation it likely won't get. A Kazakh dramedy about sheepherders is a tough sell for movie audiences - even in Kazakhstan, probably - but this narrative-fiction debut of documentary maker Sergei Dvortesvoy spills over with warmth, humanity and a quirky charm that's difficult to define.
The title is the name of a beautiful, albeit unseen, young woman who lives with her elderly parents on a remote steppe in southern Kazakhstan. She is not the focus of the story. Instead, Tulpan embodies an all-too-elusive dream for the true central character, an open-hearted, jug-eared Russian seaman named Asa (Askhat Kuchencherekov) who has just ended a tour of duty. Now, he has returned to his native land to learn the sheepherding business from his older sister, Samal (Samal Esljamova), and his no-nonsense brother-in-law, Ondas (Ondas Besikbasov).
Asa isn't a natural-born shepherd, and Ondas doesn't bother to conceal his disdain for the young man. Ondas wants his brother-in-law out of his yurt and his hair, but has made it clear that Asa needs to get a wife if he hopes to earn his own flock. A bachelor, Ondas says, cannot survive the hardscrabble life on the steppes, and it is hard to doubt him. Dvortesvoy and cinematographer Jolanta Dylewska vividly capture the challenging conditions -- strong winds and flat terrain, nearly devoid of vegetation, as far as the eye can see. The desolate milieu is interrupted only by the occasional dust storm.
But it takes a lot to discourage Asa. He doesn't even give up when Tulpan spurns his attempted courtship because his ears are too big. On that count, Asa gets a little backing from his goofy friend, Boni (Tulepbergen Baisakalov), who helpfully shows Tulpan's parents that Asa's ears aren't as big as those of Prince Charles. Asa remains on the steppe, enduring the slights from Ondas and daydreaming of a future in which he and Tulpan have their own yurt, complete with satellite television and Japanese solar panels.
Wry and funny, the movie benefits from a documentarian's eye that Dvortesvoy brings to the script he co-wrote with Gennadi Ostrovsky. Events unfold quietly and at a leisurely pace. A veterinarian with an injured baby camel in the sidecar of his motorcycle is doggedly followed by the patient's irked mother. Ondas' young son listens to news on a transistor radio, memorizing it so that he can repeat it later, word for word, to his father.
In this bleak and unforgiving environment, Tulpan celebrates - pardon the cliché - the indomitable spirit of humanity. Don't wince. Amazingly, Dvortesvoy embraces the resilience of these people without striking a note of fake sentimentality. Asa's perseverance and Ondas' grit are both illustrated by a mesmerizing pair of scenes involving the births of lambs. The film's characters have hard lives, certainly, but their weariness does not translate into defeat. Indeed, Tulpan suggests there is virtue in coming to terms with reality.
Presented in 1.85:1 widescreen and anamorphically enhanced for 16x9 displays, the picture is a stunner, bolstered by sharp lines, crisp details and a strong color palette.
The foreign-language film boasts a no-frills 2.0 stereo track that is crisp and clear. Subtitles are in English.
Bonus materials are disappointingly sparse: a theatrical trailer and a liner-note interview with director Sergei Dvortesvoy from Cinema Scope magazine.
Tulpan is simply magnificent, a funny, heartfelt and engrossing slice-of-life on the unforgiving steppes of southern Kazakhstan. Highly recommended.