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An Old World patriarch, his rebellious daughter and her outcast sweetheart are at the center of The Song of the Tree, Aibek Daiyrbekov’s impressive and involving debut feature. Set amongst a nomadic community in 18th-century Kyrgyzstan, the film is a simple story well told, partly through song — a kind of high-plains Fiddler on the Roof, but with a spare, direct sensibility to match the wind-scrubbed Central Asian landscape. With its folkloric power and affectingly etched characters, the drama, which took its North American bow at Palm Springs and continues its travels to regional festivals including Cambria and Cleveland, could connect with a wider audience in the hands of the right distributor.
Daiyrbekov, who co-wrote the film with Sadyk Sher-Niyaz (and who in February became the youngest president to date of Kyrgyzstan’s Film Union), draws upon traditions and family stories to weave a tale of star-crossed lovers, maternal angst and tribal authority. The type of nomadic equestrian culture he depicts, in a remote and pristine part of the world, might glancingly seem familiar from such Mongolian features as The Story of the Weeping Camel and The Cave of the Yellow Dog, but this period saga is spun around a specifically Kyrgyzstani history. It captures a society in harmony with nature, at a moment when more modern outside influences, political and religious, are expanding their reach. That’s a subtly incorporated subtext of the film, which treats its emotional themes operatically but never spells out its broader underlying concepts.
The story is propelled, at key moments, by songs of yearning, sorrow and communal resilience, the clear poetry of the lyrics paired with the plaintive lilt of a few simple melodies. A very basic choreography occasionally accompanies the tunes, emphasizing the group dynamics of the culture, and one number is a romantic duet amid blue and pink wildflowers, but mainly the songs are delivered solo, by actors trained for musical theater.
Their singing is expressive, with the crystalline voice of Saltanat Bakaeva especially lovely. She plays Begimai, the strong-willed daughter of village chief Bazarbai (Temirlan Smanbekov), who has forbidden her from marrying Esen (Omurbek Izrailov). A decent man, Esen has been demonized in favor of the devious sycophant Oguz (Jurduzbek Kaseivov). The chieftain also looks down on Esen’s widowed mother, Dariika (Taalaikan Abazova), who carries on the outlawed tradition of worshipping at a sacred tree. Standing defiantly, it’s the sole tree for miles around, its leafless branches adorned with strips of cloth, one for each of Dariika’s ardent — sometimes sung — prayers.
Female members of the group are expected to do as they’re told; as one overbearing fool puts it, “A man with a head of wood is better than a woman with a head of gold.” The movie was inspired by Daiyrbekov’s grandmother, and he’s attuned to the undercurrents of matriarchal custom and the threat they pose: He observes, fleetingly but potently, the swaggering leader’s disapproving glance when his eldest daughter gives Begimai a protective amulet, an item passed down through generations of women.
When they’re inconvenient to him, the old ways have no meaning to Bazarbai. His need to show off for visitors turns the sacred tree into firewood for a feast, setting off a disastrous chain of suffering, exile, and revenge. But the characters’ twisting paths also move toward justice and renewal. Separated from his love and banished from his people, Esen receives lessons in fighting from a philosophical hunter (Ilim Kalmuratov). And Bazarbai, giving up his status-symbol yurt for a basic tent, is not only humbled; he’s slowly opening his heart to the meaning of sacrifice. There’s unexpected poignancy in the way he becomes the drama’s most moving figure, a tribute to the filmmaker’s storytelling.
Thanks to elegant editing by Eldiyar Madakim and Akzol Bekbolotov’s fluent widescreen cinematography, there’s an organic emotional connection between the characters and the land they inhabit, with its strong horizontal sweep, its big sky and racing clouds. Every pang of longing and regret resonates in a narrative whose clarity is its strength.
Production companies: Central Asian Film, Cintetrain
Cast: Temirlan Smanbekov, Omurbek Izrailov, Saltanat Bakaeva, Jurduzbek Kaseivov, Taalaikan Abazova, Ulan Nusipali, Ilim Kalmuratov, Adilet Usubaliev, Aisalkyn Kyiykbaeva
Director: Aibek Daiyrbekov
Screenwriters: Aibek Daiyrbekov, Sadyk Sher-Niyaz
Producers: Tolkun Daiyrbekova, Andrei Epifanov, Tanya Petrik
Director of photography: Akzol Bekbolotov
Production designer: Maksat Bolotbekov
Costume designers: Aidai Asangulova, Nurjamal Asangulova, Doolot Rysbaev
Editor: Eldiyar Madakim
Composer: Zholdoshbek Apasov
Lyricist: Baktygul Choturova
Venue: Palm Springs International Film Festival (World Cinema Now)
in Kyrgyz and Russian
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