Director Adilkhan Yerzhanov
THE OWNERS B-
Kazakhstan (93 mi) 2014 d: Adilkhan Yerzhanov
A portrait of miserablism, poverty and gloom, as seen through a surrealist lens where tragedy and dark comedy intersect, where it’s worth noting that the remote nation of Kazakhstan, known as one of the least densely populated nations on earth (only Canada and Australia are lower) with less than 15 people per square mile, yet it has produced two of the most weirdly unusual films to hit film festivals in the past two years, with this coming after Emir Baigazin’s Harmony Lessons (Uroki garmonii) (2013), one of the best directed and edited films from last year. Both are young directors that have graduated from the Kazakh National Academy of Arts, so New Kazakh cinema has become a breeding ground of originality and novelty. Actually THE OWNERS is a follow-up to his previous film, the 67-minute black and white short film CONSTRUCTORS (2013) Constructors | Stroiteli | FIFF | Fribourg International Film ..., shooting in wildly exaggerated colors, where both are low-key, absurdist treatments of the difficulties encountered by individuals that strive to maintain any sense of dignity when they are swallowed up whole by the apathy and indifference of a Kafkaesque Eastern European bureaucracy that may as well be the remnants of a Stalinist Soviet system left behind, as Kazakhstan was the last of the Soviet republics to declare independence following the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991. While the overall effect is a bit like Kaurismäki, with similar deadpan acting, but it’s not Kaurismäki, leaving something to be desired, namely the wit and zany characters that inhabit a Kaurismäki film. It may be closer in tone to the Yorgos Lanthimos film DOGTOOTH (2009), though stylistically quite different, as both are interested in creating a weird and entirely unusual universe that seemingly exists on its own, as if floating on air, where much of it carries a fantasy oriented atmosphere of surrealist caricature.
Our three orphaned protagonists are introduced by a child’s drawing where we see 25-year old John (Aidyn Sakhaman), the reluctant patriarch, an ex-con who has done time for petty crimes and remains unemployed, his younger teenage brother Yerbol (Yerbolat Yerzhan), a handsome aspiring actor who retains his sense of idealism, and their sickly 12-year old epileptic sister Aliya (Aliya Zainalova) who remains the most innocent of all, where the two younger actors reprise their roles from CONSTRUCTORS. Aliya continually sees the world through a kind of magical realism where people are always smiling and happy, often seen performing dance routines, where this whimsical element is a stark contrast to the gloom that inhabits the rest of the picture. Forced to leave the city when they can no longer pay the rent, they move to a remote village where their deceased mother left them a house, carrying the deed to the property with them. Unfortunately it’s currently inhabited by Zhuba (Bauyrzhan Kaptagai), the alcoholic brute of a brother to the local police chief (Nurbek Mukushev) who has been living there illegally for the past 10 years. In this lawless frontier, possession takes precedence over any existing laws, as Zhuba wages an intimidation campaign and beats the crap out of John after he files a complaint with the police, while a visit to the housing ministry only results in the futility of trying to do anything about it, reduced to a portrait of comic absurdity, a throwback to a faceless and heartless Kafkaesque world where reason never prevails, where grievances remain in a state of limbo for months and problems are left to be resolved by hand-to-hand human combat, resorting to a survival of the fittest Darwinian universe where the weak are stomped on by more powerful Stalinist forces. It’s a bleak and hopeless existence where John eventually gets arrested, where despite the dubious nature of the charges, there are signs that he will never be released, and the younger siblings are forced to survive on their own, where all that is saving them at the moment are Aliya’s charmingly innocent visions.
Duped into signing away ownership of the house, lured by the false promise of John’s freedom, the director likes to line up all the interested parties and shoot them in a tableaux shot where once again they are seen as just actors, where this offers a temporary relief from the descent into oblivion facing this family. Perhaps part of the problem with this film is a similar one depicted in Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing (2012), where the collaborators and perpetrators of the heinous acts of genocide are seen as mere caricatures, lending a cartoonish aura of ridiculousness to their nature that not only influences but overshadows whatever horrors they committed. This exaggerated comical absurdity overwhelms the grotesque nature of their crimes, where the artificiality of style, expressed through extreme violence and Hollywood dreamlike dance sequences with saturated colors, allows them to portray themselves as fools, where they may hide and take cover within the mysterious ambiguities of artistic presentation, where fiction is as distorted as reality. The heartlessness of a Stalinist regime is prevalent in both Kazakh and Russian films, where the stone cold rigidity of the system remains intact, even under the authority of a different nationality. Yerzhanov then abandons any concept of realism and prefers to emphasize the darker more satiric elements of a Kafkaesque society, but in doing so the film makes so many tonal shifts that he loses any visionary claim to authenticity and begins referencing the stylizations of others, from early Kaurismäki to Fellini to Tsai Ming-liang to the comic invention of Wes Anderson, where there’s even a tribute to SCARFACE (1983) and Vincent van Gogh. While the film never seems to work, the fun is watching it stumble all over itself with clever ideas it really doesn’t know what to do with. Yerzhanov’s picture of an absurdly decaying system of authority is saturated in an unreal universe that becomes almost too magical, where there is no question that it is a compelling style, but it grows much too absurd. Does the artistic style of the film equate to emotional truths or human drama, or does it provoke ideas or complex thought? And while it’s visually quite strong and startlingly unique, there’s some question whether it actually offers anything new.