Zeitgeist Films // 2008 // 100 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Joel Pearce (Retired) // September 9th, 2009
A journey to the most boring place on earth.
Sometimes, a director chooses to move from documentary filmmaking to narrative filmmaking. This is often a rocky move, as the former documentary filmmakers often try to use fictional tales that show how things really are, instead of just telling stories. This is the biggest problem with Tulpan, a likable film that could have been much stronger with some attention to the fiction of the story.
In it, Asa (Askhat Kuchinchirekov) has just returned to the aptly named Hungersteppe after his tour of duty in the Russian army. He hates the steppe, its endlessly flat landscape, and the overwhelming lack of opportunities. The only thing that does look hopeful to him is the possibility of marrying Tulpan, the only eligible young woman in the area. When her family rejects him outright, he becomes discouraged and hopeless: how can a man find a good life in such a barren place?
This question is an interesting one. After all, these are not like the nomadic people in so many other movies who have no sense of a more "civilized" life. The people of the steppe have magazines from Russia and America, put American pinups up on their wall, and dream of large houses with solar panels. Instead, all they have is sand, a small hut, and a few sheep. In all this, Asa doesn't understand the appeal of his family's life, and his time in the army has given him a taste of something bigger and more exciting. His family is happy, though -- content to live simply, hide from sandstorms and care for the sheep.
This simply life is captured with Sergey Dvortsevoy's documentarian's eye. He captures the life of the steppe in painstaking detail, from the birth of sheep to the horrors of the sandstorms. It is astounding that people still live like this, and even more that they do so by choice. We get the distinct impression that this is a fair depiction, and that we are probably seeing these people in their home environment -- quite an impressive accomplishment.
Unfortunately, Tulpan fails somewhat as a fictional tale. There isn't much to this story, and the cast is clearly not made up of professional actors. Like many similar productions, it has the feel of sincere but unpolished performances delivered by complete amateurs. It has simple and sincere humor as well, but that also lacks polish.
As I watched Tulpan, it was hard to avoid getting caught up in this bizarre world. At the same time, I felt it holding me at arm's length. The pace is glacial, though I suppose that's a fair reflection of life on the steppe. While there is much repetition, it does eventually reach a meaningful conclusion that answers Asa's central question. It's not a long film at 100 minutes, but it feels longer than it is.
The DVD is quite solid. The video transfer is clear and sharp, especially considering the barren shooting conditions. The sound transfer, in stereo, is fine. A 5.1 transfer would have allowed the sound to have the same depth as the picture, but a complex sound setup would have been impossible here. There's not much in the way of special features, but there is an interview with Dvortsevoy in the liner notes.
Do I recommend Tulpan? Maybe. It's been a huge critical success, so film nerds will appreciate the talent and skill involved. Casual viewers, however, will probably find that the prospect of watching 100 minutes of Tulpan is as appealing as the prospect of setting up a Yurt on the steppe. It's a strange little life that encourages curiosity, but not enthusiasm.
Not guilty, though I still don't want to trade places with Asa.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Zeitgeist Films
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (Unknown, Kazakh)
Running Time: 100 Minutes
Release Year: 2008
MPAA Rating: Not Rated