I would call Tulpan the sweetest movie to ever come out of Kazakhstan, except that it’s the only movie I’ve seen from that former Soviet republic. Maybe they’re all as artful and endearing as this.
Director Sergei Dvortsevoy trains his patient, observant camera on a family living on a remote Kazakh steppe, where sheep are herded from one side of the endless horizon to the other. Askhat (Askhat Kuchencherekov) has just returned from the Russian Navy and is living with his sister, her rough-hewn husband and their children in a one-room yurt. Askhat isn’t much of a herder, yet he dreams of recreating his sister’s humble life with a wife and herd of his own. Unfortunately, Tulpan – the only eligible young woman in miles and miles – isn’t impressed by his wild tales of life at sea. Quite frankly, she’d rather go to college.
Tulpan is a wry and delightful clashing of the traditional and the modern, with a realist’s eye for the varying values of both ways of living. The movie recognizes Tulpan’s desire for independence while also honoring the purity and simplicity of life on the steppe (when the otherwise clumsy Askhat successfully aids a goat in giving birth, the film recognizes that the moment will register as one of his life’s most elemental accomplishments).
Much of what Tulpan captures looks and feels alien – the landscape literally resembles that of Mars – yet the family dynamics are heart-warmingly familiar. And Kuchencherekov, whose big ears are the source of much derision, has another feature that you’ll recognize: a dazzling and irrepressible Hollywood smile.