Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Asa lives with his sister and her family in a crowded yurt on the steppes of the proud independent nation of Kazakhstan. He wants a yurt of his own, and his own flock, but this is an environment where it's impossible for a man to survive without a family to back him up. To realise his dream he must find a wife. It's unfortunate, then, that the only eligible woman in the region is Tulpan, who doesn't want to get married, has strange ideas about going to the city and to college, and thinks his ears stick out.

Asa is a bold and imaginative young man who has served in the navy (though his tale about doing battle with an octopus may be slightly elaborated) and who doesn't give up easily. With the help of a friend he obtains a picture of Prince Charles, arguing that he can still be a success as his ears are smaller than those of this American royalty, but Tulpan is still not impressed. Her mother dislikes the fact that he's unemployed - but, of course, without a wife, he cannot become an independent herdsman...

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This is a time when life on the Steppes is perhaps tougher than it has ever been. In contrast with the city, at least in the young men's imaginations, it's a life of desperate poverty, yet Asa still finds himself passionately drawn to it. Unfortunately his romanticisation of the work involved is often at odds with the duties required of him, much to the frustration of his brother in law, who is struggling to tend to his sheep on poor grazing land. He has three children to support (including a ridiculously cute toddler) and he needs Asa to take life more seriously.

It's a situation familiar to struggling families the world over, and makes it easy to connect with this unusual lifestyle. Falling in love with a world of dust and tornadoes may require a greater leap, but it's easy to understand the pleasure to be found in a warm yurt full of song, play and physical affection. Director Dvortsevoy wisely steers clear of showing the beauty of the Steppes in an outsider's terms - there's no gazing at sunrises or great starry skies - instead, we are confronted with dirt and fierce storms and the constant cries of animals, and we get to know this family for who they really are.

With its charming hero and its quirky sense of humour, Tulpan is a thoroughly delightful film, an unusual pleasure. It's an interesting look at an ancient way of life still struggling on in the modern world despite the awareness of other options, demonstrating how little difference things like democracy and modern industry really make to the lives of many rural dwellers, and it's also a charming character-based comedy. It's easy to warm to a culture so willing to laugh at itself, as it is to respect people surviving in the face of so many challenges. It's easy to warm to Asa, inadvertently reciting love poetry to a goat whilst being threatened by a woman with a shovel. This is a film that can help you to rediscover the wonder in small things and the joy of just being alive.

Reviewed on: 20 Feb 2009
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A man dreams of becoming a shepherd in the Kazakhstan steppe, but is there room for such dreams in the modern world?

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Amber Wilkinson ****

Director: Sergei Dvortsevoy

Writer: Sergei Dvortsevoy, Gennadi Ostrovsky

Starring: Askhat Kuchencherekov, Tolepbergen Baisakalov, Ondas Besikbasov, Samal Esljamova

Year: 2008

Runtime: 100 minutes

Country: Germany, Kazakhstan, Poland, Russia, Switzerland

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