Sergey Dvortsevoy's tale centers on Asa, a Kazakh sailor who returns home and dreams of life as a shepherd on the windswept and remote plains of the Kazakh steppe. Complications ensue when Asa's stoic brother-in-law holds back on giving him his own flock until Asa finds a wife. However, there is only one girl of marrying age in the village, and she rejects him. The elusive Tulpan, Asa’s titular beloved, will not be swayed, either by his boastful tales of battling octopi, nor by gentle persuasion. Like many rural Kazakhs, the girl has dreams of the big city.

Finally, a Kazakh character to cheer for!

Asa has a problem: the former sailor desperately wants to get married, raise sheep and live in a white house with a TV and satellite dish. The hitch: There’s only one eligible female in his Godforsaken part of Kazakhstan, and she rejects him. It’s a grim situation: if Tulpan won’t marry him, his brother-in-law Ondas won’t give him any sheep.

Asa’s not altogether successful attempts to realise his dream are at the crux of Tulpan, Kazakh director Sergey Dvortsevoy’s first dramatic feature. This is a beautifully made film, full of charm, wry humour and modest drama; it won the Certain Regard prize at the 2008 Cannes festival.

It’s set in Hunger Steppe, an aptly-named, wind-blown wasteland that’s 500km from the nearest city, where nomads eke out a meagre living. Asa (Askhat Kuchinchierekov) lives with his sister Samal (Samal Yeslyamova) and Ondas (Ondasyn Besikbasov) and their noisy children in a one-room house. Asa isn’t deterred when he first presents his case to Tulpan’s parents while she hides behind a curtain, and they explain she doesn’t like his big ears; in fact she wants to go to college.

At subsequent meetings, his tractor-driving best mate Boni (Tulepbergen Baisakalov) shows them a photo of Prince Charles to try to prove Asa’s ears aren’t abnormal, and informs them Charles is an American prince. Ondas thinks he’s a fool but Samal is more sympathetic. Asa continues his courtship while trying to prove his worth as a herdsman to Ondas in a graphic lamb birthing scene.

In a running gag, one of Ondas’ sons recites the news he hears each day on a tinny radio, including descriptions of Kazakhstan’s oil wealth and supposed modernization, which sit oddly with the peasants’ bleak existence in the Hunger Steppe.

The polar opposite of Borat, Asa is an appealing character, a yearning, innocent idealist who’s convinced he’s in love with a girl he’s only glimpsed from behind, and Kuchinchierekov brings a lot of goofy charm to the role. Besikbasov is terrific as the gruff Ondas, and Baisakalov’s Boni is a boisterous clown.

Dvortsevoy, who co-wrote the screenplay with Gennady Ostrovskiy, shows his grounding in documentaries by often using a hand-held camera to enhance the gritty realism.

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1 hour 39 min
Wed, 09/09/2009 - 11