I really liked this film… and this review essay is kind of long and spoiler-y, but I still recommend that you see it! Here’s the trailer, and you can get the movie on Amazon or Netflix…The hero, Asa, from the film website
“You didn’t impress her,” Asa is told after trying to charm Tulpan, a prospective wife living in Kazakhstan’s countryside. Having recently worked for the Russian Navy, Asa moves to the steppe in the attempt to make a living as a herder, but must work for Ondas, the short-tempered husband of his sister Samal, until he finds a wife. As dust storms swirl and more and more lambs are stillborn, Asa still nurtures his dreams of becoming a wealthy rancher with Tulpan at his side.
In Tulpan (2008), director Sergei Dvortsevoy paints a picture of the challenges of life on the Kazakh steppe, including recurrent tensions of language, geography, family, and work in Kazakh culture.
Language and cultural difficulties plague Asa. As the film opens, he sits in a yurt, talking to his prospective in-laws about his experiences in the Russian Navy. As he uses Russian to describe how to bite an octopus in the right spot, his audience quickly tires. He returns to herding, which for him means running after and frightening the pregnant ewes in his care, even as his brother-in-law Ondas shouts after him, “Jurme!,” or “Don’t run!” in Kazakh. The viewer discovers that Asa cannot speak Kazakh, and has no abilities in birthing lambs, watching sheep, or other skills necessary to be a herder. Asa’s lack of cultural skill in persuading a bride or knowing how to work hard, as well as his lack of Kazakh language skills necessary to obey Ondas’ instructions, lead to continued difficulties in communicating, and reflect wider tensions in Kazakh society involved in communications between urban Russian-speakers and rural Kazakh-speakers.
Asa also has difficulties with marriage: it is required in order for him to gain his own herd, but the one girl in the region, Tulpan (meaning “Tulip”), is not forthcoming. But Asa persists, both in pursuit of Tulpan and of his chosen occupation. He returns to Tulpan’s house again, and with his friend Boni pulls out all the stops to convince Tulpan and her family that he would be a good match: he has two arms and legs, and he’s a prince, really, just like Prince Charles, but with smaller ears! This comical sketch illustrates the traditional practice of talking to a girl’s parents rather than to the girl herself, even as the pictures of Prince Charles show an international sensibility.
Though the film is set in an arid location, the characters have larger connections, on both the national and international scale. Boni and Tulpan both talk about the city as the place to be, and even the littlest boy drives a turtle over the dusty ground like a car going to Almaty, the then-capital of the Kazakh Socialist Republic. In addition to the pictures of Prince Charles, we see Asa and Boni drive in a tractor with pornographic pictures of large-breasted women, and dawdle around reading magazine pictures depicting the high life of girls, motorcycles, and large houses. Modernity in Kazakhstan means the city, but Asa wants to have it all in his return to the countryside.
And yet Asa’s big dreams don’t seem to fit with anyone else’s dreams. Boni, laughing and drunk, thinks Asa is foolish for trying to be a herder, Ondas thinks he can’t make it, and Tulpan’s parents indicate that she prefers to go to the city and get an education. Asa confronts her through a door, asking “Are you enrolling in college? Which one? Is that your dream? Klassni! [Great!]” But just after this compliment, he shows her the pictures of a yurt, a TV, and a farm that he has drawn on the underside of his sailor scarf — a representation of his dream of becoming a wealthy herder. And then he tries to talk her out of her dream. The city is dangerous, he suggests, and she need not go to college; she can just take a correspondence course. His dreams center around himself, and in asking her to put her dreams second, this sketch offers an interesting counterpart to the pro-women stories told in Soviet times, in which a woman’s career was worth attending to first.
More traditional gender roles are seen in other settings, especially in the increasing fights between Asa and Ondas. Asa is expected to watch the sheep but instead sits dreaming of his future life. He is incompetent in caring for the sheep, and the pregnant ewes continue to wander off and give birth to stillborns. As Ondas is under increasing pressure from the boss not to lose more lambs, he becomes angry at Asa and refuses to let him herd. Asa rankles at being treated as a child. Even after the boss gives them permission to move to better pasture, Ondas and Asa continue to fight. Samal is placed in the middle, trying to soothe over the men’s anger at each other, as well as watch and manage the children. Interestingly, no other extended family is depicted, and little contact with neighbors is shown. Given the extensive networks of most families in Kazakhstan, this is a somewhat surprising distortion in the film.
The story ends in a somewhat ambiguous way. When Asa learns that Tulpan has left for the city, he intends to follow, giving up his dream of country herding for his dream of Tulpan. He returns in sadness to Ondas and Samal, who are packing up their house to move with the herds. After giving several of his Navy possessions to the children, we see that he has erased his pictures of steppe, farm, and TV from the back of his sailor scarf, and replaced them with a picture of a tulip, representing Tulpan. At the last possible minute, though, he turns around and joins his sister’s family on the back of the truck. As a storm comes, they move with the herds.
Although this discussion is told primarily from the perspective of Asa, it reflects on broader tensions between the city and the countryside, between Russian and Kazakh language speakers, and between sticking with relatives and pursuing one’s own dream. In a post-socialist era when every person is expected to provide for themselves, we see a narrative centered on isolated families and individuals, torn between sticking together and pursuing their own individual dreams. Asa emerges as an untimely sort of hero for his persistence and optimism. Ultimately, making a living in rural areas seems to necessitate giving up on other dreams and banding together, as we see when Asa, Ondas, and Samal move off into their nomadic life together.
A post-note: One of my favorite moments in Kazakhstan this summer was when driving down the dusty, tree-lined streets of Kazakhstan’s largest city, Almaty. When my Kazakh driver flipped on the radio, out blared “On the Rivers of Babylon,” the same song as in the movie. I definitely felt I had stepped out of urban Asia, and back into the steppe scenes of Tulpan.