Few art-film premises sound less immediately appealing than “novice Kazakhstani shepherd learns his trade while searching for a wife,” but movie-lovers shouldn’t let a creeping fear of barren landscapes, grubby livestock, and tiny huts keep them away from Tulpan, a beautifully choreographed and photographed story about tradition and modernity in rural Asia. Yes, writer-director Sergei Dvortsevoy indulges in long shots of windswept, dusty steppes—and one stunning sequence of animal birth—but the deliberate scene-setting fits between moments where characters crack jokes, make promises, break hearts, and generally behave like people. Dvortsevoy has a background in documentary, but for all Tulpan’s well-observed ethnographic elements, it’s meant to be a movie, not homework.
Dvortsevoy sets Tulpan’s tone early. Freshly discharged sailor Askhat Kuchinchirekov sits in a yurt with neighboring ranchers, telling an involved, amusing story about the dangerous sea creatures he encountered in the service—all for the benefit of the neighbors’ unseen daughter, whom he’s there to woo. It’s a lively scene that establishes the foibles and easily wounded dignity of all Tulpan’s major players, and it’s punctuated by a shot of Kuchinchirekov riding on a tractor, listening to Boney M at full blast and celebrating his new life. Then he gets the news that his intended has rejected his proposal because his ears are too big. Everything that happens next in Tulpan—the anxiety over a rash of stillborn sheep, the conflicts between Kuchinchirekov and his brother, and even the poetic shots of distant dust storms—are all contextualized by the way the movie opens, with a likeable protagonist fumbling and failing.
At times, Tulpan feels like an odd hybrid of old-fashioned domestic melodrama and a slow-paced slice-of-life. And some of Dvortsevoy’s quirky character touches—like the way Kuchinchirekov’s best friend decorates his tractor with pornography, or how Kuchinchirekov draws his dreams on the back of his sailor’s collar—come off as broad. But Tulpan is to a large degree about how the old ways of the nomads are dying out as people flee to the cities, so the tug between filmmaking styles makes some sense. And when Dvortsevoy lingers on rich scenes of family life, where parents and siblings gripe and tease, Tulpan’s vibrancy shames all those placid foreign films where a proletariat existence is defined by lumpen mutes staring blankly into space.