Chouga

Paris-Barcelone Films / Film Society of Lincoln Center

Paris-Barcelone Films / Film Society of Lincoln Center

Darezhan Omirbaev’s Chouga is a loose contemporary adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, but it’s unlikely that anybody will come out of this film with a cohesive memory of its plot in mind. The style of Chouga is sparse and restrained, consisting mainly of quiet scenes composed most often by single static shots and using dialogue rarely if at all. This description is in no way meant to disparage the film, for after a while you get accustomed to Chouga’s deliberate pace, and Boris Troshev’s smooth and economic camerawork allows the eye time to immerse itself in the domain of upper crust Kazakh life.

Instead of a consistently forward-moving narrative structure, Chouga seems to be composed entirely of details—details that may, at first, seem banal, but it is these details that inform the relationships and tensions between the characters.

Like the novel it is loosely based upon, Chouga concerns the trials in love and life between a group of young, privileged socialites. This may seem at first to be the perfect context to examine class tensions in a nation still in its infancy as a capitalist democracy, and Chouga does spend a great deal of its running time focusing on Western consumer objects and pop culture that (supposedly) only the wealthy have access to (e.g., digital cameras, flat screen TVs, gaming consoles, BMW, Rugrats). Although one of the film’s central characters is a struggling photographer whose living conditions are clearly inferior to that of the title character and her family’s comforts, the film fails to explore these class tensions any further.

In the spirit of Anna Karenina, Chouga moves freely between the private lives of its various characters. The film starts with the morning routine of the aforementioned photographer, who eventually runs into Ablai, a drug dealer (maybe–the details of his questionable occupation are never fully clarified) who is engaged to Altynai, a young, wealthy socialite. This eventually brings us to Chouga herself, as the updated Karenina becomes the object of Ablai’s affection. However, the viewer may be left in the dark regarding any further plot details, as many inciting incidents occur off-screen.

Omirbaev prefers his characters to treat the camera with looks of silent introspection rather than engage them with elements of high drama, but Chougadoesn’t have a supporting cast that can pull off the subtlety such a tone requires. However, Ainour Tourganbaeva, who plays Chouga, is an exception. Her isolated moments in the back of a car as she repeatedly abandons her estranged son manages to tug at the heartstrings without a single explicit display of emotion on behalf of the actress. It is in rare moments like these that the minimalist stylistic choices of Omirbaev cohere with the performances onscreen.

It is difficult to ascertain exactly what Chouga is trying to say. There are instances in the final third of the film when several supporting characters begin waxing philosophic, articulating unmotivated existential anecdotes regarding the nature of love and human cruelty, but their ideas fall flat and these moments feel incredibly forced and out-of-place amongst the rest of the film’s strained attempt at realist simplicity.

Chouga is one of two films at this year’s New York Film Festival that was coproduced by and filmed in the nation of Kazakhstan (the other being Tulpan), a place much of America knows little about aside from Sacha Baron Cohen’s farcical fabrication of Kazakh life and culture in his now-retired character of Borat. Yet Kazakhstan has recently emerged as a serious player in the international film scene with last year’s Oscar-nominated Mongol (co-produced in Russia). Chouga is, of course, as far as one could get from Mongol in just about every respect, but while its modest story may be forgettable and its tone doesn’t quite coalesce, Chouga offers a revealing, matter-of-fact look into everyday Kazakh life, giving the West an opportunity to see on film a place and a culture they may know barely anything about.

© 2008 Landon Palmer. All rights reserved.

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