Darejan Omirbaev: Shuga (2007)

reviewed by Alyssa DeBlasio© 2008

Shuga is the most recent attempt in a long line of cinematic adaptations of Lev Tolstoi's Anna Karenina (1873-1877), including silent films such as André Maître's (Russia, 1911), Vladimir Gardin's (Russia, 1914), and Edmund Goulding's (USA, 1927) versions of the novel, feature-length adaptations by Clarence Brown (USA, 1935), Aleksandr Zarkhi (USSR, 1967), and Sandro Bolchi (Italy, 1974), and the recent television series by David Blair (USA, 2001) and Sergei Solov'ev (Russia, 2007). With Shuga, director Darejan Omirbaev undertakes a modern, and decidedly Kazakh, remake of the novel. The film is set in a wealthy, cosmopolitan Kazakhstan—an image that must have been important to the Kazakh government in the post- Borat era, the same government that hired two Western public relations firms and took out a four-page advertisement in the New York Times in September 2006 (shortly before the release of Borat) to tout Kazakhstan's strong democratic record, advanced educational system, and the equality enjoyed by Kazakh women. This government-sponsored model of a forward-looking, contemporary Kazakhstan is particularly relevant to Shuga, given that a reported seventy percent of the film's budget was supplied by the Kazakh government, with the remaining costs and post-production financed by the French company Paris-Barcelone Films. Shooting took place in Almaty, Astana, and in Paris, and this “experimental Anna Karenina,” as the director has called it (qtd. Aleksandrova), must have been considered a success by many upon its release, as it was one of two films awarded the Special Jury Prize at the 2007 Eurasia Film Festival.

Shuga opens with a shot of the Kazakh landscape as a young boy rides his bike down a dirt road (Fig. 1). This initial scene is reminiscent of episodes in other films directed by Omirbaev: in the opening sequence of Cardiogram (Kardiogramma, 1995), for instance, a wide-angle shot shows a young boy watching as a man approaches on horseback over the expanse of the steppe; Kairat (1991) begins with a similar wide-angel shot as a young child and his dog traverse the landscape. In the opening scene of Shuga a young boy rides toward a fishing hole, where shots of him fishing are interwoven with snapshots of the deep azure water and a small red float bobbing up and down on its surface (Fig. 2). This aesthetic introduction is only a framing device, however, and is quickly replaced with the main narrative of the film—Omirbaev's adaptation of Anna Karenina. These seemingly discordant scenes of the young boy appear again only in the penultimate sequence of the film, which, by that time, have gained an entirely new meaning.

Although the names of the characters have been changed, giving Shuga a more Kazakh feel, structurally the plot remains faithful to Tolstoi's original, without, however, most of the character development, psychological insight, and subplots offered by the novel. In fact, the majority of the adaptation's scenes have been stripped of all passion and underlying motivation, rendering the characters lifeless, or “icy,” as the name of the heroine, Shuga (Tolstoi's Anna Karenina), implies. Played by Ainur Turgambaeva, Shuga meets the mysterious and well-to-do Ablai (Tolstoi's Aleksei Vronskii) on a train as she travels from Astana to Almaty in an attempt to reconcile her brother and his estranged wife (Tolstoi's Stepan and Dolly Oblonskii) (Fig. 3). [1] For the character of Ablai, Omirbaev chose Kazakh folk-rock musician Aidos Sagatov, frontman of the Almaty group Urker [2] —he is the type of man “that an intelligent woman could find interesting,” Omirbaev remarked. “And Anna Karenina was that type of woman” (qtd. Aleksandrova). After sharing a glance on the train to Almaty, Shuga discovers that Albai is courting her brother's daughter, Altynai, and that the family is hoping the two will soon marry. Having fallen in love with Shuga, however, Albai abandons his pursuit of Altynai almost immediately. Shuga soon leaves her husband and young son to engage in an affair with Ablai, traveling to Almaty regularly and for progressively longer periods of time to visit him. But the relationship between Ablai and Shuga quickly begins to deteriorate, and the culmination of this estrangement is imaged in a scene in which Ablai is shown gambling and losing handfuls of money while Shuga watches in disapproval.

It is after this episode that Shuga leaves Ablai, and by this point in the narrative the viewer has already anticipated the film's ending—if not from Tolstoi's novel, then from Omirbaev's foreshadowing in an extended scene in which Shuga is shown standing in a toy store, staring at a plastic train as it runs around its circular track. The actual event of her death, however, is left entirely to the imagination. Her suicide is initially only suggested, first by a conversation on the topic that she overhears while riding in a marshrutka to the station, and then at the station itself, as an ambulance rushes down the platform with medics running behind it. The viewer learns definitively of Shuga's death (though no details are given) only in the film's final scene, by means of a phone call that Telegon receives as he is out celebrating the birth of his son. This sterile final sequence highlights the emotional deficiency of the film in comparison with the psychological depth of the novel: while during Kitty's labor Levin fluctuates between agony, guilt, and empathy, even finding himself (a proclaimed unbeliever) in a sincere moment of prayer for the safety of his suffering wife, Omirbaev's mother-to-be sits silent and stoic in her hospital bed while her husband waits quietly outside; while Tolstoi's realism explores Levin's psychological state—his abandonment of all wishes for his child, and his eventual disappointment when he sees his newborn son and feels only compassion and disgust, and not the fatherly love he expected the birth of his child to stir in him—in Shuga the viewer is only provided a quick image of Altynai, shots of a silent Telegon, and no details as to the inner thoughts or conditions of either. The very last scene of the film is equally as numb: in a sequence interspliced with Kazakh dialogue, Telegon's modest celebration is interrupted by the brief phone call reporting Shuga's death, after which the two men go on about their business.

Lacking all of the narrative motivation and passion of Tolstoi's tale, what Shuga does accomplish is a presentation of a new, modern Kazakhstan with Western-style apartments, luxury automobiles, and expensive clothing. The heroes communicate for the most part in Russian, except for a few important (and unsubtitled) moments in Kazakh, making Almaty and Astana reminiscent of Moscow in many of the film's scenes. In one unexpected shot, Shuga and Ablai are seen walking down a street in Paris with the Eiffel tower behind them. From a narrative point of view, this brief scene is superfluous; it adds nothing to the film, as does the equally unnecessary scene that follows, where the couple pauses to watch the filming of a movie on a Paris avenue. Despite the possibility that Omirbaev meant this scene as a replacement for Anna and Vronskii's time in Italy, it seems more likely that these scenes were filmed in Paris simply because it was financially possible (PB Films funded all shooting in France), just as it seems equally plausible that Shuga and Albai travel to Paris simply because they can. Their trip is a badge of their wealth, another testament to the film's preoccupation not with narrative teleology, but with visual indicators of affluence—Western-style apartments, plasma-screen televisions, and BMWs.

Yet, while the Kazakhstan of Shuga is a land of elaborate bouquets and satellite television, not everyone is representative of the new upper class. Just as a juxtaposition of the old and the new is present in a scene in which Omirbaev's Dolly Oblonskaia watches from her window as a pristine, white limousine waits for a bridal party outside the crumbling façade of a Soviet-style apartment block, Shuga offers characters that act as misfits against the background of the country's new wealth (Fig. 4). The most apparent example of such a character is Telegon, Altynai's “second choice” suitor and eventual husband after her rejection by Ablai (Fig. 5). After the opening scene of the young boy fishing, the film jumps immediately to shots of Telegon as he wakes up in his modest, old-style apartment. Shots of Telegon also frame the film's penultimate scene, where images of the young boy and the steppe return. It is in this way that Omirbaev links Telegon to nature, endowing him with aesthetic sensibilities (and, thus, a goodness) that the other characters lack. Telegon is also a cameraman and a photographer, recalling the character Amir Kobessov from Omirbaev's The Road (Jol, 2001)—a fictional filmmaker played by real-life director Dzhamshet Usmonov. However, while Telegon frequently travels to the countryside to film nature and photographs his food before eating it, his character is a dramatically more watered down version of Konstantin Levin—the character on which he is clearly supposed to be modeled. Thus, while Anna Karenina has spawned volumes of criticism—in his 2007 book on the novel, Gary Saul Morson comes up with one hundred sixty-three “Tolstoian conclusions” that he supposes the reader is left with after completion of the novel—Shuga leaves the viewer above all with a single impression of a modern 21st -century Kazakhstan, littered with progressive electronics, self-help books (Is There Sex in Marriage?), and elite strip clubs.

Strip the film of its modern lacquer, however, and it seems that little remains. Not a single relationship in the film conveys any believable passion, and even the individual performances of the film's actors and actresses are devoid of all emotion. Silence and indifference prevail, leaving the viewer to suspect that the on-screen expression of coldness was perhaps included among the goals of the director. The first five minutes of Shuga are devoid of all conversation and the remainder of the film follows this precedent, preferring background noise—muffled voices, the chatter of the train station, the sound of traffic passing—to interpersonal communication. This silence is augmented with scenes of pure cruelty, such as at the close of the film, when Ablai invites Shuga to sit with him and watch a home video of several men being beat up: “Come see the present that my friends made for me. They found the guys that beat me up last winter,” he announces. Omirbaev's “experimental Anna Karenina ” is, thus, not experimental at all (despite the handful of brief scenes that feature flickering light fixtures), but simply empty—of emotion, motivation, and allure. To view this emptiness as intentional, however, could be to view it as a statement by an experienced and influential director on the void of contemporary Kazakh society—on the privileging of surface over content. Evidence warranting such a reading is offered in the final scene of the film, where Omirbaev returns to the vivid frames of the young boy fishing, the only sequence absent of any signs of affluence or modernity. By this point, the viewer now recognizes the boy as Shuga's orphaned son (Fig. 6). Although the young child is as stoic and silent as every other character in the film, the scene has gained new meaning in juxtaposition with the modern aesthetics of the rest of Shuga: the boy continues fishing, but a fish now thrashes on his rod, demonstrating that perhaps only in the steppe does true content and life exist.

Alyssa DeBlasio
University of Pittsburgh

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1] The name Shuga also recalls the song “Shuga” (2003) by the Russian pop singer Gliukoza (Natasha Ionova).

2] See Urker for the group's official website.

Works Cited

Aleksandrova, Irina. “Karenina zagovorila po-kazakhski.” AiF Kazakhstan (24 January 2007).

Gliukoza official website.

Morson, Gary Saul. Anna Karenina in Our Time. Seeing More Wisely. New Haven: Yale UP, 2007.


Shuga, Kazakhstan and France, 2007
Color, 85 minutes
Director: Darejan Omirbaev
Screenplay: Darejan Omirbaev
Cinematography: Boris Troshev
Art Directors: Aigul' Diusembaeva and Nuriia Kaspakova
Sound: Olivier Dandre
Editing: Dominique Viellard
Cast: Ainur Turgambaeva, Aidos Sagatov, Ainur Sapargali, Zhasulan Asauov
Producers: Limara Zheksembaeva, Joël Farges, Elisabeth Mergui-Rampazzo, and José-Luis Aguirre
Production: Kazakhfil'm, with Kadam Film Studio and Paris-Barcelone Films

Darejan Omirbaev: Shuga (2007)

reviewed by Alyssa DeBlasio© 2008

Updated: 11 Aug 08