Issue 25 (2009)

Ardak Amirkulov: Farewell Gulsary (Proshсhai Gulsary!, Kazakhstan, 2008) 

reviewed by Christina Stojanova © 2009


A Sentimental Journey: Farewell, Gulsary!

"Life is short and no one satisfies his desire to live in full. But there are things in life that no one must betray."
Oilan, Balam – Listen and Remember, My Son
Kazakh folk song, from The Fall of Otrar, (Gibel’ Otrara, Amirkulov, 1991)

Farewell Gulsary by Ardak Amirkulov is a nostalgic film, both in tenor and mode. It is the second rendition of the eponymous short story by the famous Kyrgyz writer Chingiz Aitmatov about the love of Tanabai, a devout Kazakh communist and a WWII hero, for his beautiful stallion Gulsary, who is a symbol of freedom and idealism—everything the main character stands to lose to the crash collectivization in the Far East in the 1940s and 50s.

gulsaryThe first adaptation appeared in 1968, only two years after the publication of Aitmatov's story, and is better known under the title The Racing Ambler (Beg inokhodza). Produced by Kyrgyzfilm, it was the directorial debut of the legendary Soviet cameraman Sergei Urusevskii. Associated with the amazing images of such Soviet classics as The Cranes are Flying (Letiat zhuravli, 1957), Soy Cuba (Ia—Kuba, 1964), both directed by Mikhail Kalatozov, The Forty First (Sorok pervyi, 1956, dir. Grigori Chukhrai), The Return of Vasilii Bortnikov (Vozvrashchenie Vasiliia Bortnikova, 1952, dir. Vsevolod Pudovkin), Urusevskii succeeded in directing only one more film, Sing a Song, Poet (Poi pesniu, poet, 1973) before his death in 1974.

gulsaryBefore taking up Aitmatov's story, Amirkulov made two shorts and three fiction films, two of which, however, propelled him to national and international fame. The Fall of Otrar (Gibel’ Otrara 1991) and Abai (1995) were expensive, two-part epic pictures inspired by Kazakh mythological heroes and heavily influenced by the elaborate mise-en-scènes of Andrei Rublev (1966) by Andrei Tarkovsky, Kagemusha (1980) and Red Beard (Akahige, 1965) by Akira Kurasawa, and flaunting “resemblance to elements"— both visual and narrative—of The Last Emperor (1987) by Bernardo Bertolucci and even Alexander Nevsky (1938) by Sergei Eisenstein.” (See Abikeeva). 

gulsaryBut while his national-(istic) epics made him one of the best known Kazakh directors, the fact that he is also a successful business man and an owner of a stud-farm for expensive, pure-bred racing horses is almost unknown. This adds an unexpected twist to the otherwise pretty straightforward biography of Amirkulov: born in rural Kazakhstan in 1955, he first studied philology, then the Film Institute VGIK under Sergei Solov’ev, to later become himself a film-production professor at the Zhurgenov Academy of Arts in Almaty, where his strong personality has undoubtedly been a decisive influence in the formation of the young directors from the so-called “new-new Kazakh wave” (see Smailova, Knox) from the last decade or so...

gulsaryAmirkulov refers to his film as “the story of the last nomad,” as personified by the main character, Tanabai (played by Dogdurbedk Kydyraliev, the star of both The Fall of Otrar and Abai) and his determination to live according to his own uncompromising moral laws, which puts him increasingly at odds with the growing conformity of the regimented, Stalinist Kazakhstan. But there is yet another, poetic dimension to his stubborn inability to yield to mediocrity—his creative spirit, externalized in his amour fou for the ambler Gulsary, and for the young and beautiful widow (played by the student Zhanel Makazhanova). The former he loses to a Communist Party official who demands the stallion Gulsary for himself (and, after failing to dominate him at the races, gets him castrated), and the latter (along with his loving, but proud wife) to circumstance.  And yet, at the film's sad finale, the aged and lonely Tanabai is reunited with the old horse, who turns to be his only, albeit short-lived, link to his real, former self, which remained hidden, but untouched by age. In this sense Tanabai is indeed “the last nomad,” and the film represents a series of his stubborn and futile resistance against the numerous attempts to destroy his farm, his horse and his soul. In spite of the harsh (self)-inflicted punishment—expulsion from the Party, demotion, labor camp—his free spirit refuses to be domesticated by the oppressive system, firmly insisting that traditional animal farming is the best and only way to farm.

gulsaryIn a way, Tanabai is yet another cinematic expression of the longing for a (positive) hero in post-Soviet cinema. Strangely enough, the almost mystical Kazakh steppes seem to be the place where such a character is likely to roam most convincingly, without masquerading as a chudak (an odd-ball), whose goodness somehow borders on the psycho-pathological as is the case with films on urban themes—for example the eponymous mermaid from Anna Melikian’s film The Mermaid (Rusalka, 2007), or the retired eccentric and his out-of-town helper in Boris Khlebnikov’s Help Gone Mad (Sumashchedshaia pomoshch’, 2009). By contrast, in films such as Mikhail Kalatozishvili’s Wild Field (Dikoe pole, 2008), Guka Omarova’s The Native Dancer (Baksy, 2008), or Sergei Dvortsevoi’s Tulpan (2008), the genuine moral fervor and humanism of the main characters are externalized in their unconditional love for animals—goats, sheep, dogs, horses. Indeed, in melodrama, according to Peter Brooks’s seminal analysis of the genre, the loss of traditional values in times of severe social and moral crisis is occulted, “masked by the surface of reality,” and allowed to break into the open only after being carefully disguised as emotionally excessive reaction. In Farewell, Gulsary!, however, (as well as in the other steppe films, mentioned above), traditional values are proudly flaunted by strong and emotionally reserved characters, brave enough to survive as loners against “a sea of troubles.” It is the human-animal bond, as well as the invariably mysterious presence of fate looming in the background of the rolling steppes, that bring into the open the “the underlying drama... of operative spiritual values” in a most convincing way.

gulsaryAlthough Amirkulov has pointed out time and again his disapproval of 'art-house' cinema as targeting a niche audience and therefore being not “quite moral,” the intricate metaphoric language of his film brings him once again closer to the Soviet poetic cinema of the 1970s, especially to such masters as Sergei Parajanov, Otar Iosseliani, Iurii Il’enko, where escapist indigenous cultural motifs—ecological and mythological—suppressed by Communism, stood for an oblique criticism of the oppressive system. By sentimentalizing the high canon of Soviet poetic cinema, he openly exposes the devastation, inflicted by the artificially imposed Soviet modernity on the traditional way of life, culture and ecology in Kazakhstan. Thus in a surprisingly convincing and powerful way, Amirkulov’s Farewell Gulsary! joins the ranks of the most recent successes of the “new-new” Kazakh cinema. Moreover, it aligns with the growing global trend of cinematic resuscitating  of lost moral values and ecological traditions as being arguably the only way for the survival of our species...

Christina Stojanova
University of Regina

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Works Cited

Abikeeva, Gulnara “I am a doubting man”, interview with Ardak Amirkulov, KinoKultura Special Issue #1 (2004)

Brooks, Peter, The Melodramatic Imagination (Yale UP, 1976)

Know, Jane “New ‘New’ Wave Filmmakers Welcome Their Audiences’ Discomfort: Kazakh and Kyrgyz Youth Films”, KinoKultura 24 (2009),

Smailova, Inna, “Three Generations of Kazakh Cinematographers: Action — Reaction — Change of Reality”, KinoKultura 19 (2008).

Farewell Gulsary!, Kazakhstan, 2008
102 min., color
Director Ardak Amirkulov
Script: E. Nurmukhambetov, E. Rustembekov (based on the story by Chingiz Aitmatov)
Director of Photography: A. Rubanov
Composer: Kuan Shildebaev
Production Design: S. Kurmanbekov
Sound: I. Biserov
Cast: D. Kydyraliev, N. Sanzhar, R. Aitkozhanova, Zh. Makazhanova, D. Akmolda
Production: Ardifilm, Aimanov Film Studio “Kazakhfilm”

Ardak Amirkulov: Farewell Gulsary (Proshсhai Gulsary!, Kazakhstan, 2008) 

reviewed by Christina Stojanova © 2009