Little Brother (Bauyr): Venice Review
Newcomer Almat Galym plays the title role in Kazakh writer-director Serik Aprymov's drama, premiering in a sidebar at the Lido festival.
Family ties prove as much a burden as a blessing in Little Brother (Bauyr), writer-director Serik Aprymov's first feature in nearly a decade. But this belated follow-up to 2004's The Hunter is too conventional and anodyne to enjoy the international exposure and acclaim enjoyed in recent months by Kazakh films such as critically-revered veteran Darezhan Omirbayev's Student and youthful prodigy Emir Baigazin's Berlinale prize-winner Harmony Lessons.
The selection of such a middle-of-the-road affair for Venice's Orizzonti sidebar, meanwhile, says rather more about the decline of that once-edgy sidebar than about the picture itself. It will nevertheless probably find berths at festivals and sidebars showcasing films about kids, as it provides glimpses of childhood in a remote, picturesque and poor corner of the world.
The central Asian republic of Kazakhstan is bigger than Texas and Alaska combined but has a population smaller than Florida's. Best known internationally as the home of Sacha Baron Cohen's maniacal "reporter" Borat, it's a spectacular area dominated by vast grassy plains known as steppes. Courtesy of Alexander Rubanov's cinematography, the underpopulated countryside is a steady source of interest in Little Brother, providing welcome distraction from Aprymov's episodic, sometimes laboriously dramatized screenplay.
Main focus is on nine-year-old Yerkan, played by the somewhat inexpressive newcomer Almat Galym. His mother died when he was four, and whenever anyone at school or elsewhere asks about his family he informs them that his father is "away on a business trip" and his brother is studying "in the city." This turns out to be only half true, but the consequence is that Yerkan effectively lives alone for most of the year, earning 15,000 tenge per month -- just under $100 -- by making and selling bricks.
Bullied at school, he has only his lame dog Taimas for company, and eagerly awaits the days when big bro Aidos (Alisher Aprymov) returns for a rare visit. Preparations for this happy event are complicated when the enterprising but over-trusting Yerkan makes the mistake of doing business with local shyster Kazhan, younger brother of the village's moneylender Zhaksybai. Kazhan and Zhaksybai, we learn, have been estranged for 20 years -- a falling-out which suggests Yerkan perhaps shouldn't place quite so much faith in fraternal bonds.
Sure enough, when Aidos finally turns up at around the picture's half-way mark, he turns out to be more interested in chasing old flames than interacting with his kid brother. He does at least teach the bullied lad some rudimentary martial arts and also takes him, in the film's most amusing and effective sequence, on a trip to the local cinema. This rickety establishment's rules dictate that at least six patrons must buy tickets before the film can be shown -- a policy thankfully not yet known far outside the Steppes.
After a typical display of resourceful ingenuity from the youngster, Yerkan and Aidos do get to enjoy a celluloid screening of Kanymbek Kassymbekov's delightful-looking Do You Need A Puppy? (2003). The selection of such a vintage film necessarily begs the question of whether Little Brother will still be doing the rounds come 2023.
It's hard to be particularly optimistic on that front, as this is for the most part such an earnestly pedestrian retread of very familiar rural-childhood tropes -- the days when Aprymov was selected as a Director In Focus at Rotterdam (2000) now seem a very long way off. There's a stuffily antique feel to proceedings, with the entire soundtrack seemingly post-dubbed and every footstep pedantically emphasized in Andrey Vlaznev's sound-design.
Aprymov's son Alisher at least exudes a certain sleepy-eyed bad-boy swagger as the blue-balled Aidos, and strikingly resembles a very young Elvis Presley from certain angles. And, having only this year graduated from the University of Tennessee at Knoxville with a degree in Business Administration, Aprymov junior might perhaps try seeking out English-language roles next.
Venue: Venice Film Festival (Orizzonti)
Production company: Kazakhfilm
Cast: Almat Galym, Alisher Aprymov, Murat Omarov, Dokhdurbek Kydyraliyev
Director / Screenwriter: Serik Aprymov
Producers: Gulmira Zaripova, Dinara Aprymova
Director of photography: Alexander Rubanov
Editor: Silvan Kutandin
Music: Myrzali Zhienbayev
Sales: Kazakhfilm, Almaty, Kakakhstan
No MPAA rating, 94 minutes