Aibek Daiyirbekov’s debut feature The Song of the Tree, which premiered at this year’s Moscow International Film Festival, has been pitched as a musical, for better or for worse. Yes, the film contains songs and even a dance here and there. However, the songs would be better described as sung dialogue in the vein of The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964) while the few dances are narratively embedded rather than external as spectacles unto themselves. Such descriptive adjustments would then place the spectator in a slightly different frame of mind going into the film than the one prompted by the term ‘musical’ and all it connotes – from a Hollywood and even Bollywood perspective. Though the opening shot of blue sky and clouds that then pans to a woman singing by the titular tree seemingly confirms the use of ‘musical’ to designate the film, the rest operates more like a Shakespearean play that revolves around several families of a nomadic Kyrgyz village. Interwoven strands of thwarted love, masculinity spurned, and village honour contested come together to make up a distilled and concentrated examination of hubris and the tragic consequences that it inevitably engenders vis-à-vis community.
Asan (Adilet Usubaliev) and Esen (Omurbek Izrailov) are the eldest and youngest sons of widow Darika, whose singing/praying by the sacred tree opens the film. This scene of Darika (Taalaikan Abazova) singing of her sons and her wish for them to become strong, respected men within the village by imbibing its wisdom is the very picture of close-knit family and community bonds, especially since it takes place around the very thing that holds such importance to families of the village and literally symbolises part of their land. This harmonious connection between family, community, and land is even accentuated by the long take and fluid camera movement that leisurely dance around Darika and the tree while she sings. As if already anticipating the break of this connection that occurs later, the film introduces village lord Barbazai (Temirlan Smanbekov) with his entourage arriving at the tree with a simple cut that nevertheless feels visually abrasive following the previous scene’s spatial ease and expansiveness. Indeed, Barbazai essentially tells Darika that she is wasting her time praying at the tree, only to leave just as abruptly so as to attend to the sumptuous celebration for the wedding of his eldest daughter.
As part of the wedding preparations and festivities, a game of kok boru takes place, during which the film’s central protagonist and antagonist emerge: Esen, a young impulsive man-in-the-making, and Oguz (Jurduzbek Kaseivov), a tough and hardened man-of-the-village. The emergence of this conflict then gives way to another connected conflict: between Esen and Barbazai and his disapproval over the former’s romance with his youngest daughter Begimai (Saltanat Bakaeva). One can also read a theme of generational difference in the film, as Esen and Begimai, unlike their respective parents, are rather individualist and vocal about their personal desires and act on them. In this way, too, Esen and Begimai contrast with their respective elder siblings Asan and the latter’s sister (Madina Talipbek). Yet when Barbazai orders the sacred tree to be cut in order to serve his daughter’s in-laws an extravagant meal (and boost his social standing), something breaks in the village, morally, emotionally, and socially. (The title, then, could also be The Curse of the Tree, though the immediate doomsday association of ‘curse’ is at odds with the film’s more pensive tone.) The broken connection becomes the conflict that subsumes all the above-mentioned conflicts, leading to a walkabout-like journey for Esen, who decides to leave (and is chased out of) the village after a series of physical assaults and verbal abuse led by Oguz, and the banishing of Barbazai, Begimai, and their family from the village when the truth about the sacred tree emerges.
As a line from one of Begimai’s sung dialogues poetically and wistfully expresses, ‘Fate sometimes takes devious roads.’ Ironically, though, the narrative strands are clear-cut. But their simplicity marks not a lack of ideas but the heightening of one, that of hubris and its costs, through the lens of a village and not necessarily of just Esen. In retrospect, as significant as Esen’s individual journey is from the point of view of character and plot, the larger picture begins and ends with the community. Hence the visual significance of the sacred tree as well as the yurt, the traditional trans/portable round tent dwelling of central Asian nomadic populations. The film’s aforementioned opening shot and concluding sequence of the setting up of yurts, accompanied by sung dialogue, visually affirm this point. For the tree and yurt denote community bonds as well as the bond between the (identity of the) village and land. It is important to note, then, that Esen and Begimai are never so defiant of the community to the point of (morally or socially) bankrupting or rejecting its customs, traditions, and/or beliefs. Barbazai’s overreaching ambition expresses not only his ego/arrogance but also a turning back against community; and the same eventually applies to Oguz even more. What is ultimately devious and twisting are the differing ways in which Esen, Barbazai, and Oguz find their way back to a sense of community.