Tulpan, directed by Sergey Dvortsevoy, is a peculiar and delightful thing: a romantic comedy set in the steppes of Central Asia. Bound by a semi-arid plain of scrub nubbed with yurts like sleeping beetles on a vast desolate counterpane, the story follows the hopeless courting of a young Kazakh just discharged from the Russian navy. Asa is in need of a wife before he will be given a flock of sheep (the basis of economic survival in his hard-scrabble world) to make him independent of his sister’s family with whom in the meantime he is forced to live. He gets along well with his sister, less well with his frustrated and bitter brother-in-law, and cheerfully with his much younger nephews and a niece who run riot whenever possible in the only world they know, connected to the world outside by means only of Uncle Asa’s stories of life in the big city and a radio the oldest nephew listens to for much of the day and whose reports he relays importantly to the family each evening.
Asa makes the awkward if unavoidable mistake of falling for the only eligible candidate in the neighborhood – a young girl who lives a day’s ride away and is never seen by either him or the audience except in fleeting moments as she shyly scoots off or as a pair of questioning eyes peering through a curtain in her family’s yurt during Asa’s brief visits. She rejects him out of hand, ostensibly because of his big ears, but really, it becomes clear later on, because she hopes to go to college in the capital, to flee the dead-end existence of a shepherd’s wife in the great emptiness she would otherwise never escape. Her name is Tulpan – “tulip” in Russian.
This simple tale of a charmingly ridiculous unrequited love is set off by a secondary story about a strange disease that is causing most of the brother-in-law’s lambs to be stillborn. And this provides an opportunity the film takes advantage of to the full: the animals in the film, at first merely part of the local color, gradually – and without the slightest sentimentality - turn into a sort of collective character fully as important and realized as the humans. And with good reason, since without them the humans would have nothing to live on. The symbiosis of human and animal is treated with unself-conscious grace and much good humor: one scene between Asa, in despair over his certainty that he has lost Tulpan forever, and a curious, sympathetic goat is a hoot. Though even that scene is surpassed in a fit of zany inspiration between a stubborn mother camel and her extorted cub in an apparent homage to The Story of the Weeping Camel, and fully worthy of it. That scene shows off both camels as the most charismatic animals I, for one, have seen since that sweetly scruffy film.
The film’s humorous realism carries over to the handful of minor roles that charm the story, including a sidekick and wingman for Asa who hopes to move with him to the capital where all the girls are – and where one suspects the friend will at some point cross paths (and somewhat more successfully than his charming but auriculately challenged buddy) with the transplanted Tulpan.
Tulpan the film works the surprising spell of making the desolate plains of Kazakhstan seem almost inviting, if not exactly romantic, when populated by such amenable creatures with which to face its hardships.
Take that, Borat!