'The Owners': Cannes Review

Courtesy of Festival de Cannes
Once upon a time in the Wild East.

No sign of Borat in this surreal, tragicomic, visually rich revenge drama from Kazakhstan.

CANNES -- Kafka meets Kaurismaki in this bleakly funny Kazakh drama, the third feature by the young writer-director Adilkhan Yerzhanov. Showing in Cannes under the free-floating "Special Screening" category, The Owners is a caustic critique of small-town corruption and croneyism in contemporary Kazakhstan. It is also poetic, surreal and visually arresting.

Oil-producing Kazakhstan is by far the richest of the former Soviet republics in Central Asia, but its movie industry remains spotty, with a reputation for consuming stodgy historical epics domestically while exporting arthouse indie dramas to foreign festivals. The Owners falls firmly into the latter category, being classic auteur fare, an uncompromisingly singular vision with limited commercial potential outside specialist cineaste circles.

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Penniless ex-convict John (Aidyn Sakhaman), aspiring actor Yerbol (Yerbolat Yerzhan) and their sickly little sister Aliya (Aliya Zainalova) leave the city of Almaty to start a new life in their late mother's rural cottage. Unfortunately, the house is occupied by Zhuba (Bauyrzhan Kaptagai), an alcoholic village elder with a nostalgic fondness for the brutal old Soviet regime and an unsettling resemblance to Oliver Stone. Even more unluckily for the new arrivals, Zhuba's brother happens to be the local police chief (Nurbek Mukushev), who sides with family in the increasingly violent ownership dispute.

The Owners plays very much like a semi-sequel to Yerzhanov’s 2012 feature Constructors, a starkly minimal monochrome drama about another recently evicted trio of siblings struggling to build a rural home in defiance of corrupt and obstructive bureaucracy. This time the story is longer and in color, with a broader sweep of tragicomic events, but several key elements remain. The willfully disorienting tone, a blend of savage pessimism and gleeful comic whimsy, is even more pronounced here.

Yerzhanov cites Vincent Van Gogh as a key influence on the film’s look, which helps explain its lurid color scheme and painterly sense of composition. Characters are frequently framed in pointedly non-naturalistic portrait shots, carefully lit and posed center screen. Sunflowers and other bright yellow objects also form a recurring motif. Striking still-life tableaux punctuate the action, from handsome close-ups of mud-caked boots to snapshots of banknotes floating on streams of fresh blood. The meticulous use of geometrical, symmetrical visuals almost rivals Wes Anderson in places.

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With its crooked lawmen, brutish land barons and blood-soaked gunfights, The Owners is partly a psychedelic revenge western from the Wild East. With characters breaking into jerky dance routines at the most inappropriate moments, including funerals and tragic death scenes, the magical-realist tone is often jarring but never boring. Whether all this stylized goofing around adds up to a substantial new voice in post-Soviet cinema is a moot point, but Yerzhanov's hallucinatory fever dream is certainly one of the most strikingly original outliers in the Cannes program.

Production company: Short Brothers LLC
Cast: Yerbolat Yerzhan, Aidyn Sakhaman, Aliya Zainalova, Bauyrzhan Kaptagai, Nurbek Mukushev
Director: Adilkhan Yerzhanov
Screenwriter: Adilkhan Yerzhanov
Producers: Adilkhan Yerzhanov, Olga Khlasheva, Serik Abishev
Cinematographer: Yerkinbek Ptyraliyev
Editor: Adilkhan Yerzhanov
Music: Andrei Dubodelov, Mikhail Sokolov, Alexander Sukharev
Sales company: Urban Distribution International, Paris
No Rating, 93 minutes

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