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There’s the strong aura of a folktale or even a Bible story in The River, a luminous family portrait of five young brothers living and working in isolation on a farm on the dusty Kazakh plains, where the sudden intrusion of the modern world brings corruption, temptation, betrayal and deceit. Following Emir Baigazin’s festival successes Harmony Lessons and The Wounded Angel, the new film completes the gifted writer-director’s “Aslan trilogy,” reaffirming his growing reputation as a visual craftsman of uncommon discipline and expressivity. Some may find it aestheticized to a fault, but this is a seductive, sensual work, its melancholy spell pierced by unexpected humor as well as danger.
Baigazin’s style is instantly recognizable — each shot is a marvel of elegant composition and yet the images also breathe, whether it’s the spare interiors, the rustic outdoor farm structures or the expansive beauty of the natural world. In addition to instilling the drama’s leisurely rhythms via his fluid editing, the director also serves here as cinematographer for the first time. His widescreen framing is expertly calibrated in terms of spatial dynamics, with the characters pinned in place or moving through static shots without ever seeming overly choreographed. Camera movement is minimal aside from two key points in the narrative, also the only time that non-source music is heard, in this case an ethereal choral piece.
While the trilogy is linked by the adolescent protagonist’s name, the stories are only tonally related and function as individual works. The eldest of five sons close in age, 13-year-old Aslan (Zhalgas Klanov) is entrusted by their strict father (Kuandyk Kystykbayev) with the supervision of his brothers in their farm chores, including tending the livestock and making mud bricks to build a barn. The boys’ father is a kind of jailer, but in what seems a rare moment of open communication, he tells their mother (Aida Iliyaskyzy) that he built the lonely house, far even from the local village, to keep them safe from outside perils.
The brothers engage in boisterous rounds of tag or soccer, practice archery with homemade bows and arrows, or play soldier games with toy guns fashioned out of sticks. But their work requirements are serious, and when the father sees them slacking, he whips the twins, Yerlan and Tourlan (Zhasulan and Ruslan Userbayev), reprimanding Aslan for letting his affection for them compromise his authority. The punishment is doled out off-camera, conveyed only in vivid sound, while Aslan’s intense gaze is seen in sharp focus and the youngest boy, Kenjeh (Sultanali Zhaksybek), remains a nervous blur, watching apprehensively from the sidelines. It’s this type of economical but descriptive image-based storytelling and pinpoint observation that makes The River so transfixing.
The body of water that provides the film’s title is a long trek from the farm, and their father has never taken the boys there. It is perceived as a place of both desire and dread, its powerful currents and eddies potentially treacherous. But when Aslan introduces his brothers to the river’s cool caress, it becomes a regular idyllic escape for them. They swim against the current or allow it to carry them, later sitting in silence on the banks or sunning themselves on the rocks. Among the loveliest images are those showing the four oldest boys in the water while Kenjeh, too small to swim, crouches and watches from the shallows.
Around the time you start to wonder if this is going to be purely a mood piece about a pastoral childhood of rigorous work and simple pleasures, Baigazin springs a hilarious surprise. As the boys go about their regular tasks, a cousin who has appeared out of nowhere glides into the frame on a hoverboard. Unlke Aslan and his brothers, who wear roughly stitched sackcloth shorts and shirts, the outsider, Kanat (Eric Tazabekov), clearly hails from the city. He looks literally like an alien traveler amongst them with his long hair, sunglasses, helmet, silver metallic jacket, bright yellow knee socks and sneakers.
Kanat brings a jolt of startling color, but more importantly, he brings a wireless tablet device with GPS, which enabled him to find the village. In a film whose time period has been kept vague up to that point, and whose sound has been dominated by wind, human breathing and sparse dialogue, the jangle of video game noise emitted by the tablet is a great joke in itself. But it’s also an instant disruptive force. The boys are drawn to it like magnets, and Aslan struggles to keep them focused on their work as they take turns playing with it and get into fights over access. It also brings a flood of international news that makes their rural way of life seem suddenly insignificant and obsolete.
Baigazin maintains an element of mystery as to the result of this collision with the 21st century, but without giving too much away, it involves what appears to be a grave accident at the river. Several times it’s been suggested that the river grants wishes, which plants the idea that Aslan may have made some dark private pact to regain control. But that proves difficult once bitter division has been sewn amongst the boys. They continue to bicker and jostle for the upper hand, threatening to spill incriminating secrets about one another that will get them into serious trouble with their disciplinarian father. But Baigazin gracefully subverts the fatalistic vein he has so carefully set up, veering into a conclusion both poignant and playful that suggests the first steps toward a new freedom.
The River is a strange and beguiling experience, possibly too enigmatic to travel far beyond the art house fringes but so visually ravishing and rich in humanistic observations that it is certain to bring this distinctive young filmmaker new admirers. (Following its Venice premiere, the film screens in Toronto’s Platform competition.) Many of the images are extraordinary, like a prolonged shot of the second-youngest brother, Mourat (Bagdaulet Sagindikov), standing in a fierce dust storm as a rope swing bobs and dances beside him. In addition to his assured technical command, Baigazin impresses by coaxing superb naturalistic performances from his young principal cast, their watchful eyes conveying knowledge, sensitivity and a stillness beyond their years.
Cast: Zhalgas Klanov, Zhasulan Userbayev, Ruslan Userbayev, Bagdaulet Sagindikov, Sultanali Zhaksybek, Kuandyk Kystykbayev, Aida Iliyaskyzy, Eric Tazabekov
Production companies: Emir Baigazin Production, Norsk Filmproduktion, Madants
Director-screenwriter-producer: Emir Baigazin
Executive producers: Aigerim Satybaldiyeva, Hilde Berg
Director of photography: Emir Baigazin
Production designer: Sergey Kopylov
Costume designer: Aidana Kozhageldina
Music: Justyna Banaszczyk
Editor: Emir Baigazin
Casting: Dinara Manabayeva
Venue: Venice Film Festival (Horizons)
Sales: Films Boutique
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