Dir: Aktan Abdykalykov. 1998. Starring: Mirlan Abdykalykov , Adir Abilkassimov, Mirlan Cinkozoev. Kyrgyz. Asian Cinema/Foreign.

Beshkempir is a simple entwicklungsroman set in Bar-Boulak, Krygyzstan in 1960. It begins with a scene in which an infant is passed between women over a colorful rug. The women ritualistically intone, "This is not my son, this is not my son, but may his path in life be full of joy!" He is swaddled and placed into a cradle alongside a wooden bowl and a set of asiks (dice made from the knee bones of a lamb). They name him Beshkempir and he is taken in by a childless couple. From here on, we witness a world dominated by women and focused on children. The possible implication is that many of the Kyrgyz men died fighting for the Soviet Union in World War II. What few men are present usually are engaged in solitary activities like fishing or drinking vodka. The different generations of women seem to preserve the link to both the past and the future.

The film then jumps ahead 12 years to Beshkempir’s onset of puberty and is from here on is mostly shot in stark, poetic black & white. Beshkempir’s adoptive parents are strangely distant and reserved. Only his grandmother is openly affectionate. As a young man, Beshkempir’s attention is now divided between work, his friends and a burgeoning interest in the opposite sex. He and his friends eagerly spy on a woman bathing. Beshkempir and his best friend become interested in their neighbor, Aynura. Tempers flare and during a fight Beshkempir learns that he’s adopted. His father hits him for his role in the embarrassing situation and the boy runs away. He returns following a death in the family and is thrust further into adulthood as he is put in the position of settling the deceased’s earthly affairs.

Abdykalykov’s depiction of Kyrgyzstan makes it look like a dusty, grey, dirty cement quarry. Most of the activities undertaken in the film seem directly and literally tied to the Earth. One of Beshkimpir’s jobs is making bricks of mud. Another time, he and his friends cover themselves with mud to protect themselves on a honey raid. He and his friends even construct an ersatz girl out of mud and pretend to have sex with her before some wandering cows trample their creation and return it to its natural state.

Even though it was made in the 1990s, the look and lifestyle of the characters makes it reminiscent of Italian films of the Neo-Realist period from its reliance on non-professional actors (Beshkempir is played by the director’s son) to its affinity for the inherent poetry of simplicity that would be smothered by a less talented film-maker. Instead of straining to create beauty, the director’s straightforward focus on (literally) birds & bees as well as swaying trees and winding creeks conveys a tone that sentimentality and a syrupy score never could. But this is no cinematic travelogue, trading in the exoticism of a world most of us don’t know about. Rather, the simplicity befits the proven realist formula and provides a fascinating glimpse into a world, despite its superficial differences, that anyone who was ever a child can recognize.

When the director does switch to color, as in the scene where the Kyrgyz villagers attend an open air screening of a lavish Bollywood musical, or yarn and jewelry, they seem designed to convey a reality that contains infrequent but vibrant color, and not just music video flash. It all comes together in a mix that is, at the same time, familiar, strange and idyllic.

Posted by:
Eric Brightwell
Jul 7, 2008 3:37pm
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