Ernest Abdyjaparov: Pure Coolness (Boz salkyn, 2007)

reviewed by Gerald McCausland © 2008

One would expect a Kyrgyz film about bride kidnapping to become a major sensation. Bride theft was outlawed under the Soviet regime, remains illegal today, and is regarded by much of the global community as a particularly offensive example of women's oppression. Nevertheless, it is an ancient part of Kyrgyz culture and retains a powerful hold on those who venerate local tradition. A feature film around such a topic would seem bound to arouse intense political debate. Ernest Abdyjaparov, however, does not seem interested in achieving this kind of notoriety in his latest film, Pure Coolness. The topic is first mentioned in the context of an overly anxious mother's exaggerated fantasy. When we see an actual kidnapping being prepared, it seems to be a peripheral plot thread, tangential to the cares of the film's heroine. The kidnapping itself is more farcical than violent and is never allowed to overshadow the heroine's larger psychological drama. It is difficult to avoid the impression that the episode of bride theft is but a component of the representation of some larger conflict.

The plot remains focused throughout on the young protagonist, Asema (Asem Toktobekova), an urban girl who at the story's outset is in love with Murat (Siezdbek Iskenaliev), a boy from the country. To her parents' chagrin, Asema announces that she intends to marry Murat, has quit her job, and is now going to travel with Murat to his home village, where she will be introduced to his family. Asema initially feels uncomfortable in this new setting, in which she must deal with the aggressive attention of Murat's female relatives and the discovery that Burma, an earlier girlfriend of Murat's, has no intention of giving him up easily. Asema also learns that a poor local girl is about to be kidnapped and married to the shepherd boy Sagyn (Tynchtyk Abylkasymov). At a party, Murat allows himself to be seduced by Burma, after which Asema wanders off in despair, is mistaken for Sagyn's intended bride, and kidnapped. Asema understands immediately what is happening to her and at first struggles to resist. But when Murat comes to rescue her, she refuses him and, thus, in this one act of willful rebellion, seals her fate. The second half of the film chronicles the first weeks of her new life, in which she slowly develops a bond with her new husband.

Anthropologists and sociologists can easily explain the function of bride kidnapping in traditional societies, particularly from the point of view of the groom's family. But every successful theft raises the much more difficult question regarding the victim's motivation to stay with her new husband. The usual explanations involve either the social advantage of marriage into a good family or the social stigma of shame that would attach to a girl who ultimately rejected her kidnapper—after even a single night with him, she would presumably no longer be a virgin. These considerations, perhaps compelling for a local girl, ought to have little hold on a young woman from a large and relatively distant city. Yet after Asema's first (completely chaste) night with her intended husband, the viewer of Pure Coolness has little doubt that she will stay with him forever. It is Abdyjaparov's considerable achievement that the film's explanation for Asema's behavior is subtle, powerful, and strangely convincing. It will also make the film somewhat disturbing to some viewers.

The film is built upon a small set of coordinated oppositions, the most obvious being the contrast between the urban and rural milieus. The city is the locus of family discord and chaos, in which a modern young woman can act as a free individual and a young man can behave recklessly. When the young couple travels to Murat's native village in the region of the Issyk-kul Lake (a favorite location of Abdyjaparov), Asema appears surprisingly vulnerable to the strong family traditions and customs, while Murat brings with him the discord of the city, which has apparently attached to him as a kind of cultural infection. His worldly airs, his big-city bride, and his later infidelity mark him as now alien to the traditional world in which he was raised, and serve to set up a stark contrast to the almost ridiculously inarticulate and inept Sagyn, who is, nonetheless, embedded in village society and whose relatives will insure that he will obtain a bride in spite of his personal limitations. This is not to say that rural society is completely harmonious or unambiguously male-dominated. Family relations are fractious, and several of the more comic scenes make clear that women dominate this society in several crucial ways. Nevertheless, conflict is contained and roles are clearly defined, which endows this society with stability and peace.

The film's photography is both technically and artistically first-rate and serves to reinforce the ideological message of the film. The striking beauty of the natural setting and of native costumes communicate to the viewer something of the psychological transformation taking place within Asema without requiring her to articulate it in any concrete way. We remain completely outside of Asema's internal world and have no direct knowledge of her subjective experience. This is in keeping with traditional patriarchal societies and with the action of this particular film, in both of which women are denied individual subjectivity. Apparently, her only hope of happiness is in subordinating her own personal desires to the power of her new surroundings. This is given specific articulation by Sagyn's mother, who explains to her new daughter-in-law that the land of Sagyn's ancestors will now become her land and that if she treats the land with respect, it will protect her. Just as Murat had been infected by the corruption of the city, Asema allows herself to be transformed by the power of the land and of the ancestors that are now becoming her own. The film's music complements the visual setting and further gives expression to the atmosphere of peace and happiness surrounding Asema.

Asema ultimately surrenders to an almost mystical power that offers her a new identity and the prospect of future happiness. As important as the bride theft is to the plot of the film, this mystical force prevents the kidnapping from dominating the work as a whole. Ultimately, this force is opposed not to women's empowerment, but to erotic love as a structuring feature of modern society. Erotic love brings discord and conflict, and leads to no good end. While this point is made rather crudely through Burma's seduction of Murat, it is a subtle but pervasive message throughout the film. It is reinforced once again toward the end of the film when Murat reappears. He is still able to dominate Sagyn at several moments of conflict, which climax in a testosterone-charged, if highly ritualized duel on horseback. Significantly, it is the loser in this battle who, despite everything, “gets the girl.” In this way, the film stands in opposition to the principle that at some level drives the plot of most Western narrative films: the individual hero and the erotic drive that motivates his actions are here opposed to a completely de-eroticized sexual pairing, one mechanism through which a traditional society stands against the forces of modernization. An orthodox Freudian would designate this oppositional force as the death drive—the surrender and ultimate return to ancestors, to land, to peace, to stillness, to nature, to the “pure coolness” of which Sagyn sings to Asema as their relationship begins to grow:

Pure coolness
Fir trees rising from the rocks in the mist
Silence is everywhere
But my heart is full of happiness
Thy sky has sent me the girl of my dreams
(English subtitles)

Less “orthodox” viewers will have other reactions to this song, to the message behind it, and to the controversy it invites.

Gerald McCausland
University of Pittsburgh

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Pure Coolness, Kyrgyzstan, 2007
Color, 95 minutes
Director and Scriptwriter: Ernest Abdyjaparov
Director of Photography: Aibek Djangaziev
Production Design: Sharip Jailobaev
Music: Ernest Abdyjaparov and Murzali Jenbaev
Film Editor and Sound Designer: George Kolotov
Costume Designer: Bakyt Tulpar
Cast: Asem Toktobekova, Tynchtyk Abylkasymov, Siezdbek Iskenaliev, Elnura Osmonalieva, Zarema Asanalieva
Production: Oy Art Film and ALD Capital Group with support from the Hubert Bals Fund, the Göteburg Film Festival Fund, and the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation

Ernest Abdyjaparov: Pure Coolness (Boz salkyn, 2007)

reviewed by Gerald McCausland © 2008

Updated: 20 Mar 08