Nagima: Busan Review

A stark, heartbreaking critique of Kazakhstan's ambivalence towards its own disenfranchised youth.

Kazakh director Zhanna Issabayeva returns with a stark portrayal of the social alienation among the young have-nots of her country.

Boasting a largely expressionless protagonist, an extremely austere mise-en-scene and an overwhelmingly fatalistic view on life, director Zhanna Issabayeva's Nagima sees the Kazakh director diving head-on into a stark exploration of social alienation among the have nots in her country. The sporadic flashes of optimism in her previous films about the underclass -- the con-man who doubles as a good husband and son in Karoy, an impoverished boy struggling to take care of his broken family in Talgat -- are nowhere to be seen. What's left, as Issabayeva deftly reveals, is a world completely drained of color and emotion.

It's a touch surprising that the Kazakh director's most static and formalistically challenging offering has been chosen as a gala presentation at the Busan International Film Festival. This is not to say it doesn’t deserve the attention: Nagima is a showcase for an artist in firm control of her own distinct cinematic aesthetic, no matter how austere it may be.

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The film's first quarter sets up Nagima's gloom well: the title character, an 18-year-old orphan (played by Dina Yukubayeva), is seen scrubbing dishes in the kitchen, packing leftovers for dinner, traveling on a bus to her home in the outskirts, and interacting with everyone with the same, expressionless demeanor. Bar her brief panic as she calls for help when her pregnant roommate (and fellow orphanage graduate) Anya (Mariya Nezhentseva) suffers bleeding contractions, Nagima returns to blank-faced mode as she and her voluble prostitute neighbor Nina (Galina Pyanova) accompany Anya to the hospital.

As Anya dies while giving birth, Nagima is jolted, albeit just slightly, from her impassivity, as she seeks out her biological mother. With that reunion ending sourly: her mother demands to know why Nagima wants to "ruin her life a second time" by coming to her farm.

While the pessimism doesn’t offer that much comfort for the viewer, Issabayeva has made Nagima artistically coherent with the static camerawork from Sayat Zhangazinov. Devoid of histrionics or excessive exposition, the film offers a sharp and sober contemplation about life, with the fleeting appearance of oppressors (such as the medical staff who at first refuse to treat Anya because of her lack of identification documents, or the employers and landlords exploiting the young women) just enough to provide a backdrop for the struggle of these extremely disfranchised (undereducated, kinless) characters.

Nagima comes with its longueurs, but it still offers a captivating, bravely claustrophobic look at young lives going nowhere.

Gala Presentation, Busan International Film Festival
Production Company: Sun Production
Director: Zhanna Issabayeva
Cast: Dina Yukubayeva, Galina Pyanova, Mariya Nezhentseva
Producers: Zhanna Issabayeva, Erlan Bazhanov
Screenwriter: Zhanna Issabayeva
Cinematographer: Sayat Zhangazinov
Production Designer: Anton Bolkunov
Editor: Azamat Altubasov
Sound: Adil Merekenov
In Kazakh
80 minutes