By Leo Goldsmith
Dir. Darezhan Omirbaev, Kazakhstan, no U.S. distributor
In one of the first scenes of Darezhan Omirbaev's Chouga, an aspiring cinematographer named Tléguen meets the beautiful Altynaï after she gets out of class with a modest bouquet of flowers for her birthday. Just as she coldly accepts them, Ablaï, the son of a wealthy businessman arrives to take her to lunch. Tléguen, surprised and hurt, declines his invitation to join them. "It's a shame," Ablaï says to Tléguen with something like mock-regret, as he escorts Altynaï to his parked BMW. "We could have talked about real cinema."
Cinema—its real and ersatz versions—is as much a subject of Chouga as are the tragedies and epiphanies of romantic love. Omirbaev's film is ostensibly an adaptation of Anna Karenina, an efficient reduction of 800-plus pages of text into less than 90 minutes of film, comprising the basic structure and about a half dozen of the principal characters of Leo Tolstoy's novel. But in this process of distillation, Omirbaev does more than simply transpose Tolstoy's work from late 19th-century St. Petersburg to early 21st-century Kazakhstan. Like his forebear, he employs the tragic dalliance between Anna and Vronsky (in this case, Chouga and Ablaï) to look deeply at the shallowness of the upper classes. But he does so, as this early exchange between Tléguen and Ablaï hints, with an interest in modern Kazakhstan's newly consumerist society and particularly the visual culture on which it feeds.
How, then, to talk about a "real cinema" of modern Kazakhstan? As an adaptation of a classic story, probably very familiar to Omirbaev's audience, Chouga is already one step removed from the real, a copy of a copy. Following the novel with a surprising literalness, the film moves from character to character and event to event, employing an omniscient narrative mode that never alights on one protagonist for long. The film begins with Tléguen (Omirbaev's stand-in for Tolstoy's Levin), a sad-sack cameraman-to-be with few prospects, then shifts to Altynaï’s parents, whose marital troubles Chouga has been summoned to ameliorate. Like Anna herself, Chouga fatefully arrives in the southern capital of Almaty by rail, and when Ablaï happens to see her at the train station, their immediate attraction sets in motion a chain of events freighted with misfortune—abandonment, jealousy, suicide—which Omirbaev follows with concision and a sense of inevitability.
Aside from the inordinate amount of very modern chintz, makeup, and luxury goods on display, the principal difference between the novel and the film is that the latter remains mainly outside of the characters' consciences. Much like the work of Bresson, to which Omirbaev's film has been compared, Chouga often seems low-key in the extreme, methodically proceeding through its quiet abstractions of the events of its source novel. Actors often display a dour, sinister minimum of affect, dialogue is reduced to terse interchanges, and physical action—especially the great many significant glances between the characters—is emphasized more by the punctuation of editing than by any expressiveness of performance. For a more antsy viewer like Stephen Holden, who called the film "close to unwatchable" in his perversely dismissive three-sentence write-up in The New York Times, this style may prove to be insufficiently melodramatic. But for Omirbaev's purposes it's perfect, ramping down Tolstoy's soap-opera grandiosity, while still managing to elevate the banalities of a high-society dalliance to the level of a cosmic psychodrama.
Indeed, this has a lot to do with Chouga's interest in what might be called "real cinema," as well as its many followers and imitators. Throughout the film, Omirbaev demonstrates his sensitivity to the ways visual media figure into the new Kazakhstan and its consumer-capitalist preoccupations. While the furnishings of Tléguen's rustic home include old VHS tapes and a beat-up television on which he watches Aleksandr Zarkhi's 1967 Russian version of Anna Karenina, Ablaï's pied-à-terre in Astana boasts a nice flatscreen on which he watches nature programs in high definition. Even Chouga's old bureaucrat husband is briefly glimpsed biding his time playing with a Game Boy.
But rather than simply lampoon this mass media obsession, Omirbaev is careful to define their influence and integration in the characters' lives; the film does not seem so much contemptuous of the proliferation of different visual media as fascinated by the odd ways they insinuate themselves into the culture at large. Quite unexpectedly, a vacationing Chouga and Ablaï walk onto a movie-set in Paris, which here seems no more real than the new, garish, fluorescent-lit skyscrapers of urban Kazakhstan. Omirbaev wittily incorporates these artificial oddities into the emotional undercurrents of his film, as when Chouga's son leaps up from his PlayStation to lovingly embrace his mother, leaving his little cartoon race cart to drift across the television screen, melancholically astray in the virtual world of the game.
To portray the relentless, artificial visual culture in which Chouga's characters seem to live, Omirbaev uses a visual and narrational style that's often entirely desiccated, restrained to the point of utter minimalism. A stripper's dance becomes less a titillating spectacle than a lifeless ritual; Ablaï's thuggish associates aren’t so much glamorous mobsters from a genre film as bored imitators; elderly guests at Tléguen and Altynaï's wedding—these are Tolstoy's Levin and Kitty, after all—gossip about the film's central scandalous romance as the "kind of thing that happens in films," making it sound entirely banal. Chouga consistently strips away the surface veneer of this sort of high society to reveal the blandness at its core.
By contrast, the film is also inflected with stunning moments of what we might interpret as good old-fashioned "real cinema": the dream sequences of a boy fishing in a rural setting that bookend the film; Chouga's quiet realization of her attraction to Ablaï, played in almost complete darkness with brief flashes of light from outside her traincar; an elegant cut from a champagne cork popping to the burst of fireworks; Chouga's eerie dream of her husband, son, and lover wordlessly being shut off from her in their respective rooms, one by one. Interspersed throughout the film, these instances of surprising sensitivity suggest a reservoir of emotion buried by this grim and deadening society—much like the very quiet, but rich performance of Alnur Turgambayeva as Chouga, who nonetheless manages to convey a sense of tragedy from under many pounds of fur and mascara. Like the news of the birth of Tlénguen and Altynaï's son in the final scene, these moments offer something like hope, alternatives to the world of bland affluence represented by Ablaï and his friends, who are reduced to little more than couch potatoes by the film's end. Far from unwatchable, these details offer the viewer a way out, grace notes of respite and serenity, even if they occasionally seem like the remnants of a European art cinema long since forgotten, lost in the wake of a flashier, more commercial visual culture.