I was confused as I started to watch Yermak Tursunov’s Little Brother/Kenzhe. I thought it was the other Kazakh Little Brother, Serik Aprymov’s Little Brother/Bayur (2014) that won a few prizes on the festival circuit (the International Confederation of Art Cinemas prize at the Cine Junior children and youth film festival in France, the Best Eastern European Film Award at the 29th Annual Santa Barbara International Film Festival, and an Honorable Mention at the Nashville Film Festival). I have been anxious to see Bayur ever since I missed my only chance to see it so far at the San Francisco International Film Festival in 2015. Maybe the Kazakh words ‘bayur’ and ‘kenzhe’ can both be translated as ‘little brother’, but having two festival friendly Kazakh films in two successive years with the same English title is asking for confusion from the non-Kazakh English-speaking audience.
I am less likely to be confused in the future, though, because this is clearly a Tursunov film. I feel I can say that because the Asia House Film Festival 2016 in London provided the opportunity to watch two Tursunov films from his prolific year of 2015. I am less likely to be confused because this opportunity to watch two Tursunov films back to back enables one to witness clear parallels in the Little Brother and Kazakhstan’s 2016 Oscar submission for Best Foreign Language Film, Stranger/Zhat. They both feature orphaned young boys who live as isolated men in professions that demand seclusion or at least temperamental social ties. They each feature a white Kazakh elder who acts as a grandfatherly figure for the Asian Kazakh protagonists. And they each demonstrate Tursunov’s love for the Kazakh landscape. In spite of using two different cinematographers, Sergei Kozlov in Little Brother and Murat Aliye in Stranger, the lush landscapes, the vast mountain-scapes displayed prominently throughout both narratives are clearly the captive vision of Tursunov.
Little Brother is a gangster drama, allowing for action scenes, and, unfortunately, action cliches, such as the driving of expensive cars up winding roads. (Something about the slightly stuttered progression up the hill and awkward maneuvering around the bends seemed to hint that professional drivers were not utilized for these scenes.) Two young brothers leave their village to find more in the big city. One becomes a hitman and the other becomes a man dictating hits. The hitman as an adult is played by Zhandos Aibassov, a stunningly handsome actor who need say nothing to draw your attention. He comes off as a complicated, conflicted soul. Still, his character is impacted by some flaws in the film, such as scene juxtapositions that either leave too much out or seem to be thrown without clear purpose. The scene where the one hitwoman is getting cat-called by boys in a jeep doesn’t really propel the narrative anywhere. It’s just a weird awkward scene with no real purpose outside of maybe a misguided attempt to present that we should see the character as attractive. Well-placed beats of humor would have also helped break up the sustained serious tone that gets off-putting at times. However, a truly thriving national cinema must have diverse genre output, and since the only Kazakh films I have seen up until this point have been geared towards international festival and art house circuits, Little Brother shows promise for a well-executed gangster film, but still just promise more than realization.
Stranger works much better for me. Yerzhan Nurymbet transfixes similar to Aibassov in Little Brother. He too doesn’t need to say much to leave an impact. Nurymbet plays Ilyas, a boy orphaned after his father is taken away by the Soviet army for questionable reasons. Ilyas soon treks off into the mountains to make a man of himself off the land. He returns often to the village, although in the cloak of nighttime, to drop off meat, a scarce commodity, and skins from the animals he traps and kills. As a young man, he begins to make himself visible in the village again. It is then that he learns his childhood sweetheart, Kamshut (Elina Abay Kyzy), has married his best friend. Their intense desire for each other is not squelched by this discovery, and one of the key points of tension is whether they will act on this desire.
Although Stranger suffers from some of the same forced poignancy of Little Brother, Stranger works better partly because of how Tursunov weaves in the history of Kazakhstan under Soviet rule. The ‘Koryo Saram’ (‘Koryo’ being an older word for ‘Korea’ and ‘saram’ being Korean for ‘people’) who traveled to coastal regions of Russia such as Vladivostock during the early part of the 20th century to avoid famine and later Japanese colonialism were later forcibly transported into the Russian interior of what is now Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. They were transported on what Koryo Saram called ‘ghost trains’ since so many people died during the journey. Intertitles allude to this at the beginning of the film and various other moments from the shared history of Russia and the Kazakh people. We definitely continue to learn not to trust the Russian government, making Ilyas’s retreat to the mountains seem like the most sensible choice among the other options of famine, poverty, and fear of tyranny in the village.
Asia House’s focus on Tursonov will hopefully be an international turning point for him. There are many stories to mine in Kazakh that an international audience has yet to hear and local Kazakhs will likely want brought to the big screen. Although these films do not have the raw power of his countryman Emir Baighazin’s Harmony Lessons (2013), Tursunov shows Kazakh cinema has potential for multiple auteurs to emerge from a growing national Kazakh cinema.
Stranger was shown at the Asia House Film Festival 2016 on February 22. Little Brother was shown on February 25.