'Suleiman Mountain': Film Review

An eerie tale of bonding, well-told.

A female shaman and her con-man husband bring to life Elizaveta Stishova’s human drama set in Kyrgyzstan, which won awards at the Eurasia Intl. Film Festival.

The surprising thing about Suleiman Mountain (Sulayman too), an exotic and engrossing drama set in the Kyrgyz mountains, is its feeling of authenticity, even though its director is Russian. Elizaveta Stishova makes an impressive directing debut with this unusual story, which involves a man on the fringes of society driving around the country in a camper with two wives and a long-lost son. The fact that the older wife is a working shaman adds an unapologetically mystical note.

As the title rightly suggests, location has a major role to play. Kyrgyzstan is a mountainous country lodged between Kazakhstan and China, caught between the old Soviet system of the past and an impoverished present that has not yet caught up to a market economy. Underlying all this is an unforgotten ancient culture that the filmmakers approach respectfully. Filmed around the sacred Suleiman Mountain (now a World Heritage Site), the story carries mystical-religious vibes that subtly build to a moving climax. Happily, Alisa Khmelnitskaya’s screenplay carries this baggage lightly, making it the background to the gritty realism of a squabbling family who live on the road.

There are no great, soaring emotions here, which may curb audience interest a bit, but it’s a sensitive film full of twists that leads the viewer deep into the lives of its gypsy-like outsiders. After trekking around the festival circuit, the Russian-Kyrgyz-Polish coprod got a warm reception close to home at the Eurasian Film Festival in Astana, where it won both the NETPAC and Fipresci awards.

Wearing traditional clothes and a head scarf, Perizat Ermanbaeva plays the healer Zhipara. She’s intense woman of few words, but not without a sense of humor. As the film opens, she is in a crowded home for abandoned children, waiting to be reunited to her son. It’s never explained how he got separated from his parents when he was a one-year-old; now the boy is a streetwise eleven or twelve and has no memory of his family. But little Uluk (the bright-eyed Daniel Daiyrbekov) jumps at the chance to leave the sheltered claustrophobia of institutional life behind him.

The villagers congratulate Zhipara on finding him, but she waits nervously for the reaction of her violent husband Karabas, whose volatile moodiness is conveyed by Kazakh actor Asset Imangaliev, looking at once dangerously disheveled and darkly attractive. When he finally turns up with his young second wife, the clinging and trampish Turganbyubyu (Kyrgyz actress Turgunai Erkinbekova), he appears pleased to see the boy; she less so. The rivalry between Turganbyubyu and Zhipara is atavistic and profound, and it's painful to see them begging for tidbits of their shared man's attention. The girl insists the boy is not Karabas’ son. She’s pregnant, by the way, making it imperative for Zhipara to make the most of this lost-and-found child.

Stishova has a pleasantly concise style of filmmaking and the action moves along smartly. The two hostile wives are forced to pitch in to run the family business, which cashes in on Zhipara’s reputation as a famous healer. Karabas drives his odd family around the country in an ancient East German camper, dodging debtors while the women make appointments on their mobiles with people who want to consult Zhipara. She goes into action in a memorable scene on top of Suleiman Mountain, rolling her eyes in an apparent trance, grunting and whipping the supplicant.

Everyone seems to need her assistance with illnesses and psychological traumas, even a local mayor. In each case, Karabas throws away her hard-earned cash on gambling and drink. His volatile personality leaves little room for fatherly feelings towards Uluk, a delightfully wry kid who seems far too well-mannered for this rough family. The boy's brief moments of joy and belonging always end in disappointment and dismay, but as Zhipara says optimistically, home is where you’re beloved, and he sticks around through the family’s misadventures.

Throughout the film, questions are subtly raised about authenticity. Is Uluk really the couple’s lost son? Is Zhipara really a healer, or a con artist like her husband? In a key scene, she joins four white-robed women shamans who pray and sing to the sacred spirits of Suleiman Mountain. They fall into a trance, grunting and swishing small whips just like Zhipara. One of these women, played regally by Nasira Mambetova, may be her guide and mentor. But when she ominously refuses to predict Zhipara’s future, you know it's bad news.

Tudor Vladimir Panduru's cinematography shifts effortlessly between the stark poetry of untouched nature and the gritty tackiness in which the family lives. Karolina Maciejewska gives the editing a concise freshness that has nothing to do with minimalism.                                   

Production company: Virtual Kick Studio in association with Telegey Company, New Europe Sales.
Cast: Perizat Ermanbetova, Asset Imangaliev, Turgunai Erkinbekova, Daniel Daiyrbekov, Nasir Mambetova
Director: Elizaveta Stishova
Screenwriter: Alisa Khmelnitskaya  
Producers: Yelena Yatsura, Andrey Devyatkin, Victor Kuznetsov
Co-producers: Sadyk Sher-Niyaz, Samat Sabraev, Radoslawa Bardes, Tomasz Morawski, Jan Navazhevsky
Executive producer: Marina Chashnik
Director of photography: Tudor Vladimir Panduru
Production designer: Svetlana Dubina
Editor: Karolina Maciejewska
World sales: Antipode Sales & Distribution
Venue: Eurasia International Film Festival (competing)
102 minutes