Amanzhol Aituarov and Satybaldy Narymbetov: Steppe Express (Stepnoi ekspress, 2005)

reviewed by Thomas Welsford© 2007

A station-master and his daughter live, quietly but contentedly, half-way along the line to nowhere until the arrival one day of a dashing stranger in need, with whom the daughter slowly falls in love. Eventually the girl elopes with the newcomer, not to return until after her father's death, when—older and wiser—she comes to tend his grave and rue her faithlessness. Sound familiar? The story is taken from Pushkin's “The Station-Master,” so it should. As the lights dim in the auditorium, though, it may take viewers some time to grasp what they are watching: in a provocative move, Aituarov and Narymbetov have transposed the narrative to a railway track in southern Kazakhstan at some point in the mid-1990s.

Bright-eyed Sauliye (Aizhan Aitenova) is a dutiful companion to her father, gruff Kazakhstan Temir Zholy (KTZh) employee Aydar (Tulegen Kuanyshev), but she has a guilty fantasy, and it sparkles. When she is not on the train selling koumiss and trinkets to passengers, she retreats to her bedroom; furtively checking that nobody is about, she gazes at her collection of catwalk photographs tacked to the whitewashed wall behind a tapestry. A local shepherd pines for Sauliye from afar, but the virtuous girl is heady with dreams of L'Oreal and Dior, and succumbs only when stranded French traveller Etienne (François Labbé) arrives to charm her with renditions of Johnny Hallyday and descriptions of the Champs d'Elysées. Sauliye and Etienne fight, then flirt, then swim: and one day they run off to Almaty and, thence, to France, fearing that Aydar will disapprove of their relationship. When her father dies several years later, Sauliye returns home to attend his burial, a single mother with a blond son. While the youngster plays with his cousins in the backyard, Sauliye opens the marriage chest that her parents had kept in readiness for the day of her wedding. This, she understands, is the world she has rejected: the chest, the veiled family mourners, and the squealing children outside in the rain. The sun is setting as she and her sobbing son embark upon their journey back to an unloved home, and her loyal shepherd admirer gallops up alongside the train. Looking out of the window, she weeps as it dawns on her that she has rejected him as well.

That's the sad version. Something a bit more heart-warming? French traveller (and Johnny Hallyday fan) Etienne is on a train when he meets bright-eyed koumiss-seller Sauliye. When he notices that his wallet is missing, he dashes out onto the platform to find the girl, only to see the train rolling off without him. Sauliye's father, gruff KTZh employee Aydar, invites Etienne to stay with them until the next train passes through. Thus begins a fish-out-of-water comedy of manners as the charming Frenchman is treated for mysterious ailments by large Kazakh matrons rubbing herbs on his backside, gets stuck in an outdoors privy, and falls off a horse. He and Sauliye, meanwhile, fight, then flirt, then swim, and one day they run off to Almaty; and after an embarrassing incident at a poolside party (where Etienne topples into the shallow end) they both head off to France.

Or something a bit more philosophical, perhaps? This is the point where Pushkin begins to get drowned out by a heavy dose of early 20 th -century Sufi mystic Hazrat Inayat Khan, one of whose aphorisms is quoted in an opening title. “In order to identify something,” we are told, “it is necessary to establish its opposite: because if something has no opposite it cannot be identified.” There is no time to question the sense of this particular nugget of wisdom (what is the opposite of a tea-cosy?) because the philosophy keeps coming fast. Flickering images of mounted nomads galloping around in a game of buzkashi are followed by a cut to gruff KTZh employee Aydar and his bright-eyed daughter Sauliye peddling along the railway tracks: Kazakhstan is a meeting-place of the old and the new, the directors remind us, employing a visual juxtaposition almost identical to that found in Zhanabek Zheteruov's similarly-themed Notes of a Railway Inspector (2006). Aydar straddles the generations, with his industrial savvy and his eagling prowess; a pious Muslim but not so puritan as to refuse a drop of something, he is the very image of a tolerant Kazakh citizen. Naturally, therefore, he has no objection to Sauliye's budding relationship with the Frenchman, but rather smiles upon them on each step of the way: he wants nothing more than for Sauliye to marry someone she loves. It is only when the station-master visits Almaty to catch a glimpse of his child and learns at a gaudy high-society bash that this foreigner has no intention of wedding his now-defiled daughter that Aydar loses his cool; having been banged up by the police and spurned by the upwardly-mobile Sauliye, he returns alone to the railway tracks, his eagle, and the tomb of his late wife. Cosmopolitanism is all very good and well, he decides, but when it comes to a daughter's virtue there have got to be limits somewhere. When a wiser Sauliye alights from a gleaming new express train for the funeral, she understands that her father was right: that the faithful shepherd is the antithesis of callow Etienne, and that the corruption of Europe is indicative of all that is right about life at the railway stop. Thus the reason for quoting Inayat Khan's apophthegm, then: east is east and west is west, and life in Kazakhstan isn't bad, really, when you see what things are like elsewhere.

The sad, the glad, and the borderline mad: three narrative strands and three protagonists, all jostling with one another for pre-eminence. And this is the problem with Steppe Express . Taken in isolation, any one of these elements would be an admirable premise for a film. Kazakhstan's bi-colored canvas of grass and sky would have been a wonderful backdrop for a Pushkinian tone-poem of love and loss and the pain of wisdom in hindsight; a comedy of cultural dislocation about Etienne adrift in the strangeness of Kazakhstan could have permitted some genuinely brave self-satire; a film interrogating the globalised siren-pull of Chanel and MTV, meanwhile, might actually have got Kazakh audiences to consider what they really hope to gain from the country's present-day economic boom. By failing to decide which of these films they are making, however, the directors end up not really making any of them. Were Aituarov and Narymbetov more precise—more manipulative, perhaps—they might have succeeded in yoking all three strands into a satisfactory whole. They might have been able to glide the audience between tonal registers, shifting in an instant from one character's perspective to somebody else's. Should a filmmaker wish to juggle multiple protagonists, though, he needs to establish right from the outset just who these people are and exactly how they differ from one another. Aituarov and Narymbetov do not do this.

Some of the most basic cinematic conventions are used only sparsely: there are few close-ups on faces in solitude to foster the audience's illusion of reading somebody else's thoughts, for instance, and few point-of-view/reaction sequences to establish who is perceiving what. With a little more use of both devices, the directors could have teased out a few more dramatic ambiguities. Does Sauliye look at herself differently in the mirror as she and Etienne become closer, for instance? Does Etienne begin to see this crumbling railway stop in a new light as he comes to know its inhabitants? And—perhaps the greatest missed opportunity of all—is Aydar aware of his daughter's haute-couture display behind the tapestry? Greater grammatical rigor could have got the viewer investing a whole lot more in the fate of protagonists with whom one actually identified; and when Sauliye breaks down at the end of the film, audiences might have cried along with her, for regrets they believed they shared. As it is, this weepy finale simply confirms what a risk it is to end a film with the lead in tears: a risk, that is, because if viewers are not weeping as well they have the uneasy feeling that something has not quite worked. What should be a swooning conclusion is rather an indictment of the filmmakers' failure to carry the audience along with them.

What makes this so frustrating is that the directors frequently indicate that they know what they are doing. There is a minute or two of real giddy loveliness as Etienne and Sauliye plunge, like lovers out of Khudoinazarov or early Zhang Yimou, into a swaying reed-bed; a nicely wry shot has Etienne, lying in a faint in the middle of the empty steppe, coming to consciousness and seeing Sauliye standing above him with a jet trail dissipating in the sky beyond; and there is something rather touching at the sight of Aydar in his KTZh uniform, specially cleaned and ironed as he ventures into the big city. But too much of the film lacks poise and balance. At times, indeed, the directors go so far as to resort to extraneous documentary-style padding: this is how people at the railway stop pour tea, this is how people say prayers. OK, but how does this help tell the story? It doesn't. An Iranian neo-realist might have got something out of such footage, but here it is pretty limp stuff. Like several other films screened at last year's 3 rd Eurasia Film Festival in Almaty— Notes of a Travelling Inspector , The Wanderer (Ovora, dir. Gulandom Muhabbatova and Daler Rahmatov; Tajikistan, 2005), and Calendar of Expectations (Kalendar' ozhidaniia, dir. Safarbek Soliev; Tajikistan, 2005)— Steppe Express suffers from the excessive faith placed by its creators in the dramatic potential of recording prosaic reality. Anyone who has had to share a railway compartment with somebody else's watermelons may be interested to see how these are unloaded, like boulders, from a moving train, but do viewers really need to know how people bake bread or how baby house martins clamor in the nest? These images may be of ethnographic or ornithological interest, but without any dramatic inflection they are as inert as the rickety exhibits to be found on display at the Shymkent provincial museum.

Sad to say, this could be said of Steppe Express more generally. The film is more eloquent as an artefact than as a work of art. An entirely home-financed film with a French actor headlining, it is as articulate a statement about Kazakhstan's renascent cultural confidence as the far larger-budgeted Nomad (Kochevniki; dir. Ivan Passer, Sergei Bodrov Sr., and Talgat Temenov, 2006) or Revenge (Kek; Damir Manabai, 2006). A story about a girl who may be equally at home in the grassy steppe or in glitzy downtown Almaty, but who is wholly adrift in distant Europe, the film is a pretty potent bit of national reification from a country jostling to position itself as the crossroads of Eurasia. As a piece of cinema, however, it does not work: though it is hard really to dislike any film that features one of its stars sitting down on a railway track and promptly falling over backwards (and you would swear it was not on purpose).

Thomas Welsford
Harris Manchester College, Oxford University

Steppe Express, Kazakhstan, 2005
Color, 90 minutes
Directors: Amanzhol Aituarov and Satybaldy Narymbetov
Scriptwriter: Odel'sha Agishev and Kuat Akhmetov
Cinematography: Khasanbek Kydyraliev
Art Director: Vladimir Aryskin
Music: Aidos Sagatov
Cast: Aizhan Aitenova, François Labbé, Tulegen Kuanyshev, Bolat Kalymbetov
Producer: Arman Asenov
Production: Kazakhfilm

Amanzhol Aituarov and Satybaldy Narymbetov: Steppe Express (Stepnoi ekspress, 2005)

reviewed by Thomas Welsford© 2007

Updated: 23 Feb 07