Issue 23 (2009)

Marat Sarulu: Song from the Southern Seas (Pesn' iuzhnykh morei, 2008)

reviewed by Seth Graham © 2009

Kyrgyz filmmaker Marat Sarulu has been a prominent figure in the national cinemas of both his native Kyrgyzstan and neighboring Kazakhstan, and his latest feature film, Song from the Southern Seas, reflects his association with the two Central Asian countries: it was filmed in Kyrgyzstan, mostly in a breathtaking area around Lake Issyk-kul, but it takes place in Kazakhstan. The multi-national production crew (Kazakh, Russian, German, French) of the film also contributes to its overall message of internationalism, as does the plot of the film itself, which addresses head-on the profoundly cross-cultural and multi-ethnic nature of Central Asian history and society.

Russians Ivan and Mariia live in a village in Kazakhstan next to Assan and his wife, who are Kazakh. The most powerful man in the village, the Russian director of a hydroelectric plant, is trying to convince his assistant, who is part of the ethnic German minority in Central Asia, from moving to Germany to start a new life with his family. When Mariia gives birth to a son with Asian features, Ivan suspects Assan of fathering the child, beginning a quiet feud that the film then picks up 15 years later. The now-teenaged son, Sasha, is a sullen youth who has quit school and spends all of his time on horseback, riding the steppe and getting into trouble with local Kyrgyz horsemen for rustling their horses (in retribution for which Ivan is beaten). Ivan is also beaten by his wife's brother, a proud Cossack who despises Ivan for being a farmer and for not knowing his lineage beyond the names of his grandfathers. Towards the end of the film, spurred in part by his brother-in-law's reproach, and more generally by his feeling of rootlessness and confused identity, Ivan visits one of those grandfathers, Georgii, who tells him the family history, and reveals Ivan's own multi-ethnic roots. Parallel to Ivan's discovery of his heritage is Assan's own, more poetically depicted search for identity; he leaves home one day without a word to spend time alone on the steppe, dreaming of his male ancestors' search for a mythical “woman of the southern seas” who will ease his grief and calm his mind.

Sarulu has made three features and two significant shorts. The potent geographical and historical image in the title of his second feature, My Brother, the Great Silk Road (Brat moi, shelkovyi put', 2001), made reference to the status of the region as an ancient route rather than a contemporary destination, as well as the “continental hybridity” question (where exactly is Eurasia?). The image of the silk road, however, is not a productive one in Sarulu's representation of contemporary Central Asia, traditionally regarded, again, not as a starting point or destination, but a territory between destinations. Sarulu's silk road is a railroad and his setting is a train full of dysfunctional people and one artist, who is summarily thrown off the moving train near the end of the film. Sarulu then cuts to a shot of a model train on a circular track, an image of pessimism and frustration, but also one that isolates a point, without which there can be no new vector.

Songs from the Southern Seas seems to pick up on that hint of optimism, planting it firmly in the upbeat ending of the film, and also in the changed characters of Ivan and Assan, both of whom return home after their respective journeys of self-discovery (a cliché, to be sure, but entirely accurate in this instance). Sarulu himself highlights this message in a comment about the genesis of the story: “The screenplay has a universal resonance and relevance…. Humanity is single entity, we all have common roots and are a single family, which is the conclusion reached by my characters. It's true: ‘Every person is born into this world in the image of God, but his parents make him a Jew, or a Christian, or a Muslim'.

 

 

 

Seth Graham
University College London

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Song from the Southern Seas, Kazakhstan/Russia/France/Germany, 2008
Color, 80 minutes
Director: Marat Sarulu
Screenplay: Marat Sarulu
Cinematography: Georgii Beridze
Music: Andrei Sigle
Cast: Vladimir Iavorskii (Ivan), Irina Ageikina (Mariia), Aitan Aizhenovoi (Assan), Zhaidarbeka Kunguzhinova (Assan's wife), Vadim Andreev (Matveev)
Production: Kino (Kazakhstan), KARO Productions (Russia), Kinoproba (Russia), Rohfilm (Germany), Arizona Films (France)

Marat Sarulu: Song from the Southern Seas (Pesn' iuzhnykh morei, 2008)

reviewed by Seth Graham © 2009

Updated: 08 Jan 09