Pallas Films/Pandora Films

Cannes Film Fest 2009–Over the past five years, interesting movies have coming out of Kazakhstan, such as “The Story of the Weeping Camel” and “Mongolia Ping Pong,” both of which played well in the global festival circuit.

Like its predecessors, Sergey Dvortsevoy's “Tulpan,” The surprise winner of the Un Certain Regard prize, is grounded in the region's unique geographic landscape and indigenous culture and mores, seldom recorded with such authenticity and humor.  Dvortsevoy's first “fiction” feature after several prize-winning documentaries, “Tulpan” world-premiered at the 2008 Cannes Film Fest before playing successfully in other venues, such as Telluride, Toronto, and New York Film Film Fests.

Set in a remote, empty region, known as the Hunger Steppe, “Tulpan” centers on Asa (Askat Kuchinchirekov), a young man who returns home after a stint in the Russian Navy, only to face new, bigger challenges at home, romantic, occupational, and existential.

Asa fails to impress Tulpan, the woman he desires, and he is poor, having no flock.  He lives with his sister, her tough husband Ondas, and their three eccentric children.  The daughter has a special penchant for nonstop singing of folk tunes, the son claims he can memorize easily news reports, and the youngest kid just plays with sticks and turtles.

Ondas holds that Asa, whom he perceives as immature and irresponsible, cannot make it in the barren land with its massive sand storms—until and unless he gets married.  As a result, the lad embarks on a campaign to win Tulpan's heart with stories of his adventures while in the military service. But the young woman, who hides behind a curtain, rejects him for various reasons, including the big size of his ears.

Earlier, Asa drew a fantasy of his future on his uniform, according to which he is a happily married family man who tends large herds, and he now tries to prove himself to Ondas when his sheep are plagued by mysterious deaths.

Stylistically, the film combines a semi-documentary with fictional style, relying on long shots of the arid land to convey the austere nomad life.  Helmer Dvortsevoy captures with humor and humanism the folkloristic details that define Asa's routine life.  In a wonderful scene, one of the most stirring of its kind in film history, Asa helps a weak sheep give birth to a lamb struggling for its life by breathing into the baby's mouth.