"His heart sees things. He is at that age when life is going bezerk."
With the fragmentation of the former Soviet Union, a host of cultures are trying to play catch-up with the twenty-first century. From the heart of Kyrgyzstan comes this subtle "coming of age" film by a first time director. Even a characteristically lackluster treatment at the hands of Winstar cannot diminish its charm.
Facts of the Case
In a tiny Kyrgyzstani village, the elder women perform a blessing ritual for a baby: "Your feet on the ground and hands on the sky, bring us joy." Years later, the boy, named Beshkempir ("5 Grandmothers") has reached adolescence. Against the backdrop of daily village life (drying balls of manure for fuel, sifting grain, hand-spinning thread), Beshkempir (Mirlan Abdykalykov) plays with his friends. They wrestle in the mud, taunt a hive of bees, sneak into a neighbor's yard to stare a naked woman treat herself with leeches—just the sorts of things adolescent boys will do. Sometimes, a young man with a bicycle enlists Beshkempir's help in courting a village girl. Every now and then, the villagers get to see a movie, random reels of belly dancers and other exotic visions.
Beshkempir is attracted to a girl named Aynura, but when he tries to flirt with her, another jealous boy picks a fight. The boy reveals that Beshkempir is a foundling, an orphan. Confused about his heritage and his budding sexual identity, Beshkempir must find his place in the world and make that painful transition from childhood to adulthood.
First time director Aktan Abdykalykov (whose son plays the title role) shows a fine sense of restraint, avoiding the sentiment that often comes with coming-of-age tales. Beshkempir is like all boys, motivated by fun (his seemingly cruel father berates him for playing when he should be working) and finding it where he can. His curiosity about sex is amusing but never to the point of farce (like a Porky's movie might be). And his transition to adulthood, as he takes charge at his grandmother's funeral (and bonds with his father), is handled gracefully. Performances are uniformly excellent, especially that of Beshkempir, whose thoughtful expressions give a good sense of his inner turmoil.
Graceful is really the best word to describe this film. Abdykalykov uses soft black and white to portray Beshkempir's world, injecting color scenes to mark images associated with the mysteries of femininity (Beshkempir's grandmother handing him money to see the movie, the movie footage itself, a beautiful bird the boy sees after thinking about Aynura). The film makes judicious use of its 81 minute running time, showing the audience not only Beshkempir's life, but the details of life in this village (filmed in a real Kyrgyzstani village called Bar-Boulak). The director's attention to detail grounds the film with a sense of realism, but certainly Beshkempir's struggle to forge an identity is universal. Slow pans, carefully chosen high and low-angle shots, and even a cleverly reflected handheld shot (meant to mimic looking into a handheld mirror) enhance the visual clarity of the story without being showy.
There is little music in the film, with Abdykalykov preferring to use natural sounds (birds, wind, et cetera) to give a sense of the expansive environment. Music is only used in key scenes (like the color shots). The sound mix is kept simple, so don't expect sonic immersion. There are a few pops and clicks, but the soundtrack is mostly clean.
The transfer is well handled. The print is clean, and the black and white is balanced and shows little shimmer. The quality of the film elements, both color and black and white, reveal Abdykalykov's professionalism: this is not some amateur hick with a cheap camera. But Abdykalykov clearly has a love and respect for Kyrgyzstani culture that could only come from a native of the region. Perhaps this is one of the best artistic legacies of the collapse of the Soviet Union: the fall of Russian cultural imperialism has opened the door for a host of artists to use the technology that was previously only available to the government thousands of miles away. And they have plenty of stories to tell and images to show.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
I just have one unkind word to say about this DVD: Winstar. The disc comes in a Scanavo case (well, that's what the case reads) which holds the disc in a death-grip. There is no insert of any sort (except for an advertisement). The blurb on the back of the packaging is a bit condescending (trying to apologize for "what sounds like cliché" in the film). The packaging promises a trailer, but there isn't one. The packaging promises 1.85:1 format, but the picture appears to be more like 1.65:1 (although I did not measure it).
Most Americans can't even find Kyrgyzstan on a map (try looking in Central Asia, by the way), much less understand the cultural references and rituals of this region of the world. So much in this film depends on the small details—what the "evil eye" is, what the funeral rituals are all about, how the dating rituals work—that perhaps a little essay or other ethnographic information might be in order. The film holds up quite well on its own though, in spite if the Winstar treatment.
Beshkempir marks the debut of a fine new director and is well worth a rental, if you are looking for a graceful and clever coming-of-age film. Because of Winstar's packaging, I cannot really recommend the disc for purchase. But the film itself is quite interesting and full of subtle and effective touches.
Winstar is held over for further punishment. Director Abdykalykov and company are released and allowed to return to their homeland with a new bicycle and some more belly dancing movies. Let's hope to hear from them again in the future.
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