What's the maximum number of extreme sheep-birthings you'd like to see in a major motion picture? Zero? One? "Tulpan," an austere drama from Kazakhstan, which was the winner of the Un Certain Regard prize at last year's Cannes Film Festival, offers two, both of which climax with -- spoiler alert! -- mouth-to-mouth resuscitation between a Kazakh herdsman and a newly born lamb. Based on that description alone, you've probably already decided whether you'd like to see writer-director Sergei Dvortsevoy's film, set on the steppes of Central Asia. Sure, for many viewers, accidentally walking into a showing of "Tulpan" would be a 10-minute nightmare of tractors and bad haircuts, followed by a 90-minute nap. To certain serious world-cinema aficionados, though, "Tulpan's" combination of understated comedy and documentary-level depiction of rural Kazakh life will be catnip.
"Look around," young shepherd Asa (Askhat Kuchencherekov), just out of the Kazakh Navy, declares to his friend Boni, "What beauty!" Dvortsevoy's camera then moves from the two young men to the windblown, featureless plain and holds that shot for upward of a minute. Asa dreams of finding a wife and building a farm, but when he's turned down for marriage by his neighbor Tulpan -- despite his family's offer of 10 sheep and a hideous chandelier to the girl's parents -- he's stuck working for his resentful brother-in-law, a surly herdsman with three children of his own. Where can he find a wife, Asa moans to Boni, if Tulpan has turned him down? "There are only three yurts on the whole steppe!"
"Tulpan's" picture of daily herding life in Kazakhstan is as unfiltered as it comes: Its actors tackle ewes, make cheese, disassemble yurts, pop zits and, yes, birth lambs right before your eyes. At times you may feel that "Tulpan" works better as a document of a vanishing way of life than as a narrative. But the migration of young Kazakhs to the cities (where, Boni claims, there are fabulous babes just waiting for a guy like Asa) ends up playing an important part in the movie's quiet plot. And though the drama can be as arid as the dust-blown landscape, "Tulpan" also offers the occasional bravura visual -- as in those awe-inspiring birth scenes, or in the gentler, sillier vision of a traveling veterinarian's ancient motorbike, its sidecar glumly occupied by a heavily bandaged camel.
-- Dan Kois (May 15, 2009)
Contains images of topless centerfolds and bottomless sheep. In Kazakh and Russian with English subtitles. At Landmark's E Street Cinema.