Nurbek Egen: The Wedding Chest (Isabelle ou la rencontre inattendre [FR], Sunduk predkov [RU], 2006)

reviewed by MIchael Rouland© 2006

Following the recent acclaim for Aktan Abdykalykov’s Beshkempir (1998) and Ernest Abdyzhaparov’s Village Authorities (Saratan, 2004), Nurbek Egen extends the Kyrgyz genre of the slick yet poignant film detailing the intersections of modernity and village life in his new film, The Wedding Chest. Egen transcends explorations of generational ties and the absurdities of everyday life in remote villages to evoke an awareness of the dynamic changes that have produced a native Kyrgyz son who is equally at home in the Parisian metropole as in his mountain village. Moreover, Egen has succeeded in directing a film that is entertaining while at the same time providing a lush sense of cinematography that establishes Issyk Kul as a visual icon.

The opening of the film evokes a sense of dislocation through a succession of dreamlike images: a sacred tree, horses galloping and a lone horseman driving them along a ridge. The colors are bright and surreal, almost saccharine sweet, while the music is slightly melodramatic. The film then shifts abruptly: this was just a dream rather than a gallant prologue of a Central Asian hero. City sounds intrude on the slumber of our modern-day protagonist, Aidar. He awakens and walks to the balcony of his apartment, dials his cell phone, and lights a cigarette as the camera pans across him to reveal the Eiffel Tower cast across the smog-filled sky like an impressionist painting. In this manner, the film begins in Paris with French dialogue. Although the Parisian mise-en-scène never explores life beyond this apartment, it establishes the distance Aidar has traveled from his home, if only for the moment of a brief phone call and the excitement of Isabelle, his French fiancée, at the prospect of their voyage to Kyrgyzstan.

Nurbek Egen establishes an immediate and direct contrast between Aidar’s past and present, utilizing respectively images of horses in the mountains and of urban expanse. Thus, it is not surprising that much of the film’s humor involves the play of unfamiliar cultures and of idiosyncratic actions. In one of our first visions of Kyrgyz mountainsides, Aidar’s uncle, Iusup, rides across the grass on a bicycle while delivering the mail.

Aidar and Isabelle embark to Kyrgyzstan in order to meet his family, but his attempts to share their wedding plans are thwarted by circumstance and by cowardice. Isabelle seeks inclusion and practices the Kyrgyz word for fiancée, “gulen,” as they travel, indicating a linguistic shift in the film. Aidar, by contrast, awkwardly introduces her when they arrive as either a friend or as a reporter who is writing about Kyrgyz customs. He cannot explain their relationship. When we see his interaction with his father, we learn why:

Father: Why did you bring her here?
Aidar: To meet you. She’s my fiancée. We wanted to get married here.
Father: Have you been living together a long time?
Aidar: Two years.
Father: That is forbidden.
Aidar: I am a free person. I decide whom I marry.
Father: You cannot.
Aidar: That is how the rest of the world lives.
Father: We have tradition, ancestors to respect, our land, our blood. How can you
change that? You should live with our people. There is no halfway.

This exchange operates at the heart of the struggle between tradition and Aidar’s new path, yet this relatively conspicuous exchange is left unexplored for most of the film. The tension also comes across as artificial, since most of the struggle with tradition is played out in Aidar’s mind. The problem is that he never convinces us that he can realize this change. In the end, Isabelle is the true motivator: “You want me to bow and be quiet? I am staying.” Isabelle is headstrong and believes that she can win over the family, while Aidar does not offer much support. “Be a man,” she exhorts and, indeed, Aidar’s manliness is often questioned in the film. He comes across as a foreign dandy, sporting crisp clothes and delicate eyeglasses. While all the other men in the village participate in a horse contest, Aidar abstains because he is not a “zhigit.”

Aidar often seems to undermine his romantic relationship by repressing Isabelle with his perceptions of village life. For example, Aidar repeatedly censures Isabelle for chain smoking; he explains that it is inappropriate for women to smoke in rural Kyrgyzstan, but the only character offering criticism is Aidar himself. In Egen’s film, women repeatedly suffer at the expense of a “man’s world.” Iusup, his father, and Aidar all refuse to adapt to their present realities and relationships. They are wedded to their limited worldviews and reject all others. The most obstinate character is Aidar’s uncle, Iusup. As the local mailman, he is both the first person to learn of Aidar’s plan to marry Isabelle and the most devoted to preventing it. But he comes across as impotent as well: he delivers his bravest speech to two empty chairs before children chase him through the street with abuse.

The film is not just a story of culture clash. Egen explores the lack of opportunities for Kyrgyz families at home and their need to travel abroad for work. This has resulted in a cultural break already exacerbated by the fall of the Soviet Union. Young, motivated, and intelligent people are going abroad to stay, and when they return they have a tense relationship with their past. This is a story that touches many Kyrgyz viewers.

Egen seems deliberately to cast this melodrama against the foundation of folk culture. Perhaps it is the first frame of a lone sacred tree or the gesture to Technicolor to mark the return of Aidar to his place as a legendary khan in his dreams. Aidar establishes himself as the genuine biological link, the tenth generation, from a legendary “Aidar” who rejected his father’s wishes and chose his own love. The parable, set three hundred years before our time, serves as a cautionary tale that ends with the trampling of the hero after he kills his father’s beloved horse. Scenes of their intertwined lives run through the film, but the protagonist is left out of the film’s culmination, in which a herd of horses gallops past Isabelle as she stands in a field.

Repeatedly, Isabelle serves as the link to tradition in the film. Her obsession with the wedding chest—a chest of jewelry, clothing, and gifts collected over the years by a mother to give to her daughter-in-law upon marriage—drives the film. Although there are abundant moments fetishizing the wedding chest, it is unclear whether they suggest the theme of materialism or the preservation of tradition. Aidar’s first action upon his return home is to locate the wedding chest. In a later scene, Aidar’s mother exhorts its beauty as a gift, and Isabelle responds in French that she will not have to wait long. Over the course of the film, we see that Isabelle and Aidar’s mother develop a mutual respect despite their inability to speak the same language. In many ways, Aidar’s mother sees herself in Isabelle, while Isabelle is desperate to appreciate the family and culture of her beloved.

Despite the occasionally awkward characters, Egen’s film is visually stunning. The camera work is patient, and there is a genuine awe of beauty that recalls the early cinematography of Zhang Yimou. In contrast to current Russian films that focus on the trauma of modernity, Central Asian film has tended to concentrate on the contemporary crisis of identity and on the remembrance of folk narratives. These themes provide a sense of optimism that we see in the concluding scene, where images of urban Paris are treated in the same majestic manner as the mountains and lakes of Kyrgyzstan. In the end, Egen’s camera incorporates all of Paris in a sweeping panoramic shot before focusing on the evocative symbol of the wedding chest now transposed to Aidar’s Paris apartment. The question remains: who will carry the mantle of Kyrgyz tradition.

Michael Rouland
Miami University, Ohio

The Wedding Chest, Russia, France, Germany and Kyrgyzstan, 2005
International Premiere at the Karlovy Vary Film Festival, July 2006.
Color, 104 minutes
Director: Nurbek Egen
Screenplay: Ekaterina Tirdatova
Cinematography: Dmitri Ermakov
Composer: Aleksei Aigi
Cast: Natacha Régnier, Bolot Tentimyshov, Marat Zhantelier, San Amanov, Absamat Uulu Nurseit, Marat Kozkeev
General Producer: Evgenia Tirdatova
Production: Kinoglaz and Pygmalion Production (Russia), MAST Productions (France), Thoke+Moebius Film (Germany), Sanzhyra (Kyrgyzstan), with support from the Federal Agency for Culture and Cinema (Russia), Arte (France), and NRW Filmstiftung (Germany)


Nurbek Egen: The Wedding Chest (Isabelle ou la rencontre inattendre [FR], Sunduk predkov [RU], 2006)

reviewed by MIchael Rouland© 2006

Updated: 05 Oct 06