I have just added the entry below to my list of the 100 greatest Asian films, which you will find elsewhere on this blog.
All films exist on a continuum whose opposite poles are documentary and fiction, and former documentarian Sergei Dvortsevoy’s Tulpan is closer to the documentary pole than any other fictional film I can think of. It is set in the windy, sandy, frigid steppes of Kazakhstan; Dvortsevoy himself was born in Kazakhstan. In Kazakh and Russian, this brilliant tragicomedy is like no other movie I’ve seen (best film, Tokyo, Montréal, International Film Festival of India).
After a stint in the Russian navy, Asa wants to realize his dream: a flock of sheep to tend, his own yurt (with solar panels, for electricity!), and a wife to share it with. Because she is the only unmarried girl around, Asa convinces himself he is in love with Tulpan (Dvortsevoy implies this mental process by keeping Tulpan always from our view, thus making her the void that Asa accordingly fills); but she turns him down, ostensibly because his ears are too big. (They aren’t, but like Clark Gable’s they protrude.) In reality, Tulpan has no desire to stick around; she has her sights on an urban college education.
Young Asa finds himself in a rut: without a wife, he will be given no flock. Asa’s resultant stasis, along with the absence of almost any narrative advancement, is formally embodied in Asa’s continual return to Tulpan, to plead his marital case, no matter how often she rejects him. Eventually Asa earns his flock, by delivering a living lamb amidst a rash of stillborns. One last time, now, he petitions the girl of his dreams. But she is in pursuit of her own dream.
The final image, of the flock materializing from the kicked-up dust, haunts, moves and astounds. Jolanta Dylewska’s contribution here (best cinematography, Asian Film Awards), as elsewhere, is essential.
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