Issue 23 (2009)

Guka Omarova: Baksy (aka Native Dancer, 2008)

reviewed by Robert Bird © 2009

Baksy is Guka Omarova's second feature film, after Shizo (Shiza, 2004). Like its predecessor, it is shot on a screenplay co-written by Omarova and Sergei Vladimirovich Bodrov (Sergei Bodrov Sr.); Omarova has stated that Bodrov also took the camera for a couple of scenes in an exhausting shooting schedule. [1] Baksy belongs to a new kind of Kazakh film—alongside Bodrov's Mongol—that is bringing Central Asian themes and landscapes into mainstream cinematic genres for international distribution. Omarova imbues the august tradition of narrative minimalism with elements of melodrama, comedy and, most conspicuously, the post-Soviet thriller. The result is what might be termed a Qoy-basi Western.

The title refers to a traditional Kazakh healer Aidai-apa, played here by Nesipkul Omarbekova. In Cyrillic it is a homograph for the slang word for American dollars; as it turns out this could be an intentional ambiguity. (The title of Shizo, written in Cyrillic with a Roman ‘z', has already demonstrated Omarova's taste for orthographic play.) The English translation “Native Dancer” appears somewhat misleading, as the old lady only once comes close to breaking into dance and is much more accomplished at beating people with large sticks.

This she has to do repeatedly, for she performs her wondrous acts of healing and counsel on disputed land. The land was been given to her by a local “businessman” Batir (Farkhat Amankulov), who is indebted to her for his son. Apparently his wife died in childbirth, and he is accompanied in his SUV by a glamorous and mendacious young girlfriend in oversized sunglasses, but Batir remains devoted to his son and to the old traditions. This respect distinguishes Batir from the younger generation. One young mafioso Arman (Nurlan Alimzhanov) sets his eye on Aidai-apa's land and won't take no for an answer. A sixteen-year-old girl Gaukha (Asel Abutova) brought to the healer to correct her behaviour continues her bad ways by falling in with the no-good Tokha (Tolepbergen Baisakalov). Tokha inadvertently provides the corrupt police with an occasion to do Arman's work and clear the healer off the land. The healer dies, or so everyone thinks, except for Asan, Batir's young son (played by Almat Aianov).

It all goes downhill from there, both for Batir and for the film. Despite the stunning landscapes (sometimes reminiscent of Abbas Kiarostami) and fascinating ethnographic couleur, we end up in a rather dreary mafia thriller. Arman promptly builds a petrol station-and-restaurant complex named Las Vegas on the formerly sacred land. At the celebration, as Arman is brought the boiled sheep's-head (Qoy basi) as the honored guest, Batir refuses to congratulate him and leaves in a huff.

 

Later that night one of the faux palm trees falls onto jerry-rigged wires, resulting in a fire that destroys Las Vegas, leaving only a charred imprint in the sand. Arman blames Batir, who refuses either to contend the accusation (though he seems innocent) or to pay the $500,000 Arman demands. Arman then hires thugs to kidnap Asan after his kick-boxing lesson, and Batir enters into battle mode in search of his son. He gives $500,000 only to be faced with a demand for a million. Luckily, the kick-boxing team rushes to his aid and Batir is eventually able to penetrate the enemy's compound, killing one of the henchmen in cold blood and getting Asan's location out of the other. Batir is then machine-gunned, leaving Asan in a state of emotional paralysis. In the meantime Tokha has found the healer, who had played dead and gone hiding in her home town. After an elaborate ritual, which like the others involves mainly the generous application of mud and parts of sheep, she restores Asan's soul to his body, enabling him to mourn his father.

The acting in Baksy certainly deserves a word; that word would be dreadful. Only Almat Aianov is somewhat convincing, as the precociously wise and embittered son. Most of the other actors pronounce their lines with uniformly amateurish gestures and intonation. They are not helped by the limited dialogue, much of which consists of monosyllabic threats followed by the ubiquitous: “Got it [ponial]?” Amankulov fares best, but only because his hard-boiled character is under instruction not to try to disclose any emotional involvement. The acting style of Tolepbergen Baisakalov as Tokha verges on the slapstick, which adds a refreshing note of humor.

Omarova seems to be in two minds. She wants us to believe in witch-doctors and, at the same time, in the beauty of BMW SUV's coursing over the Kazakh landscape. The drama of identity is palpable in the characters' bilingualism. However the dialogue is too sparse either for us to derive aesthetic pleasure from the characters' speech or for their cultural drama to play out in full. Language—along with landscape and ritual—must be considered one of several wasted resources at the film-maker's disposal. Another evident contradiction is in the film's confusing treatment of time. Events develop at a lightning pace but never quite add up. In the course of an instant, for instance, Gaukha manages to reach the latter stages of pregnancy. Having originally discounted Asan's tale of seeing Aidai after her supposed death, several months seem to pass before Batir learns that her body had disappeared from the municipal morgue. Perhaps these temporal discontinuities are a nod to magical realism, but Omarova seems reluctant to make it a consistent aesthetic strategy.

Without having enjoyed discernable commercial success, Baksy has had a limited run on the festival circuit, for which it seems intended. It has been featured at the festivals of Rome and Toronto. In the final analysis the film does more to extend the promise of Shiza than to deliver on it.

Robert Bird
University of Chicago

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Notes

1] See the brief interview on the site of the Kazakh National Assembly


Baksy, AKA Native Dancer , Kazakhstan, 2008
Color, 86 minutes
Director: Guka Omarova
Screenplay: Sergei Bodrov and Guka Omarova
Cinematography: Rafik Galeev.
Composer: ZIG
Production Designer: Almagul Menlibaeva
Cast: Nesipkul Omarbekova, Farkhat Amankulov, Almat Aianov, Tolepbergen Baisakalov, Asel Abutova.
Producers: Sergei Bodrov, Sergei Selianov, Anar Kashaganova, Natasha Deviier
Production: CTB, Kazakhfilm; Petites Lumieres; Kinofabrika; with the support of the Ministry of Culture of the Republic of Kazakhstan, the Federal Agency for Culture and Cinematography of the Russian Federation, and SNS.

Guka Omarova: Baksy (aka Native Dancer, 2008)

reviewed by Robert Bird © 2009

Updated: 08 Jan 09