(Tulpan plays in exclusive engagement at the Walker Art Center this Friday-Sunday, May 8-10. Tickets)
If there is a place on Earth that looks as unforgiving as Minnesota in January, it is the Kazakh Steppe as seen in Sergei Dvortsevoy's Tulpan, an astonishing film and winner of the Un Certain Regard Award at the 2008 Cannes Film Festival. Framed as a romantic tragicomedy but witnessed more like a documentary, Tulpan features scenes that are absorbing and amazing, engrossing and, well, gross (if seeing shepherds give CPR to their newborn flock right out of the womb isn't a daily occurrence in your life). I've never seen or even heard of any of Dvortsevoy's other films, but with the armful of awards he's won for Tulpan (and its selection as Kazakhstan's Oscar submission last year), it's unlikely he'll have a hard time attracting attention in the future.
After completing his service in the Russian Navy, Asa (Askhat Kuchencherekov) heads to the Kazakh Steppe to live with his sister, her husband, Ondas (Ondas Besikbasov), and their three adorable children. Eager to begin his adult life and his own family, Asa attempts to court Tulpan, the only young woman on the Steppe. Despite his attempts to win over her parents with tall tales of the sea, Tulpan rejects Asa because his ears are too big, leaving him stunned, dejected, and desperate. "What could I've said wrong, he frustratingly asks his sister back in the yurt. "I described the octopus' weak point, and the sawfish".
The comedy in Tulpan is as dry as the film's climate, and earnest scenes like that one illustrate that life in the Steppe is often like life anywhere else. Despite what would appear to be a lifestyle where most choices are limited, the characters still struggle with decisions and confusion about marriage, jobs, locations, and relationships. Much of their inner turmoil is mirrored by awe-inspiring weather phenomena (dust tornadoes, lightning storms), but the characters in Tulpan are not unstable people, just humble, hard-working people living in an unstable place.
Only the most determined souls can survive in a place like this, and Asa is nothing if not stubborn in his quest to win over Tulpan and secure his own flock of sheep. His best friend (who seems a bit out of place here, almost like a character from a Judd Apatow movie) tries to persuade Asa to move with him to the city. Ondas gives Asa a hard time for being a "city boy" who's not made out for living on the Steppe. Tulpan's parents are completely unimpressed with Asa, and they hide her away so he doesn't even know what she looks like. Everything is telling Asa to give up this idyllic dream, but he just won't bend.
Whether or not you'll have the patience to struggle through this plight with Asa is questionable, but if not there is still some magnificent scenery to be seen in Tulpan. Each frame is packed with eye-catching details, and what the camera captures is often more impressive than how it's captured. You may have seen infinite desert vistas before, but some of these weather patterns and animal behaviors look like never-before-seen footage from an episode of "Planet Earth". A sheep-birthing scene in particular is both squirm-inducing and tear-inducing because we know how much the healthy lamb means to Asa.
In the end, Tulpan is a love story that's been well worn by filmmakers over the years. But although the story may be familiar, I can assure that you probably haven't seen it take place in a culture or climate like this. As Tulpan tenderly illustrates, a common humanity is often most easily found in an uncommon environment.
Writing - 9
Acting - 9
Production - 10
Emotional Impact - 9
Music - 4
Social Significance - 5
Total: 46/50= 92% = A-