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Where EAST meets the Northwest

ONE MAN’S PARADISE. Tulpan, a comedic drama in which a man leaves the Russian navy to become a shepherd on Kazakhstan’s desolate Hunger Steppe, is screening at Portland’s Living Room Theaters. (Photo courtesy of Zeitgeist Films)

From The Asian Reporter, V19, #25 (June 30, 2009), page 11.

Russian director composes ode to Kazakhstan’s natural beauty


Directed by Sergey Dvortsevoy

Produced by Pallas Film

Distributed by Zeitgeist Films

By Allison Voigts

Look at this beauty!" gushes Asa, the moon-faced hero of Tulpan, as he and his friend careen wildly around the steppes of Kazakhstan in a tractor. When the camera pans to the barren expanse of dust-caked land, you’ll think he’s joking. But as the film proves, this bland-looking corner of the earth is paradise to Asa, if not to director Sergey Dvortsevoy as well.

Asa, a young sailor who has completed his basic training, has come to live on the steppe with his sister and her family for reasons unknown to the viewer. He quickly falls out of grace with his sister’s husband, the stony shepherd Ondas. Asa trips over his own legs when trying to follow the simplest of orders and attempts to correct himself with even more enthusiasm.

At first glance, Asa seems like the fool in this comedic drama, but in fact he has a solid dream. A wife, a yurt, and a flock are the only elements necessary in his vision of paradise. It sounds reasonable enough, and it certainly looks as achievable as the childish colored-pencil drawing on the bib of his sailor’s suit (a tradition, he claims, for sailors to sketch their dreams on their uniforms). But first Asa must overcome his naiveté.

His first task becomes clear when the chief herdsman tells him, "No wife, no flock." So Ondas, Asa, and his tractor-driving, reggae-loving friend journey to present Asa to the only eligible bachelorette for miles in any direction — Tulpan.

The girl is elusive but manages to evoke beauty by her absence. The name "Tulpan," meaning "Tulip," is one of many images the film conjures without ever showing it. After all, this is the steppe — there are no tulips, no oceans, and eventually no Tulpan herself.

After Asa fails to impress the bride-to-be and her parents with his nonstop jabber about fighting off blood-sucking octopi at sea, he returns dejected to the herds, where the pregnant sheep are mysteriously miscarrying. Here he fails again when his courage falters while giving a stillborn lamb mouth-to-mouth in a scene depicted with shocking naturalism.

Director Dvortsevoy refuses to spare viewers any of the gory details of life on the steppe, whether a limp, wet lamb or a toddler urinating into a bowl inches from his father’s sleeping head. Some of the film’s most fascinating scenes take place within the confines of the family yurt, where we become intimately familiar with each character and his or her personality through their simple household actions — singing, fighting, listening to the radio, or attempting to make love in a one-room house.

This family is what some would call "the salt of the earth," and Dvortsevoy’s romantic natural portrayal of each member is nothing new; Tolstoy romanticized peasant life long ago. But it is a rare concept in contemporary films and usually takes place in climates less harsh than the Kazakh steppe.

Dvortsevoy composes his love song to this lifestyle in the symmetry of a dusty cyclone or a puppy chewing a bone against a backdrop of rain clouds that swallow the horizon. While it requires a leap of imagination to picture this land as paradise, it isn’t impossible to sympathize with Asa’s dream. Thus his small victories feel utterly satisfying, and the film itself finishes like a round, hearty meal.

Tulpan is playing at Living Room Theaters, located at the corner of S.W. 10th Avenue and S.W. Stark Street in Portland. For more information, including showtimes, call (971) 222-2010 or visit <>.