Issue 26 (2009)

Yolqin To’ychiyev: Silence (Sukunat, Uzbekistan, 2008)

reviewed by Thomas Welsford © 2009

sukunatA young woman sits in a doctor’s consulting room. She needs help, she says. The room does not look prepossessing. A sun-bleached poster on a peeling wall, a wilting spider plant, a rickety cabinet containing some ominously dusty vials and tubes.

The camera prowls up behind her as she sits, pale and anguished, at the doctor’s desk. The unseen doctor attempts to explain the situation. There is no certain way of curing deafness, he tells her. Deafness is something to be borne. It is something to be lived with.

But deafness is not something that the young woman can live with. Distraught at the doctor’s prognosis, she crumples into sobs—until the director orders cut, and the camera stops running, and the young woman, Lobar, springs up to adjust her hair and make-up in readiness for the second take.

sukunatFrom the film set to the theater: from the theater to the dubbing room, the photographer’s studio, the location shoot. Our protagonist is clearly a successful young actress. Extras on the film set swarm about her in the hope of an autograph; a shy young stranger on a bench steals glances to see if the person next to him is indeed she. But all is not well. Languid in the back of a taxi, Lobar is taken aback when the driver asks if she is going to answer her telephone; on the set of some garish television advertisement for margarine, she is confused to find herself sitting in an emptied studio, everybody else having mysteriously abandoned the shoot. Like the character whom we have seen her playing in the film, Lobar herself is going deaf; like her fictional alter ego, she too is drifting into a world of sukunat, or silence.

Except, though, perhaps she is not. Lobar appears to have no trouble with comprehension when, while filming on location, she runs into an older man with whom she may once have had an affair; back home in her rambling apartment, she has no trouble exchanging words with the glowering theatre director whom we take to be her husband. That her deafness seems thus periodically to correct itself brings little discernible comfort, however. Quietly, implacably, it emerges that the very intermittency of her condition is itself indicative of a deeper malaise. Our protagonist is losing her sense of who she actually is.

sukunatIn a terrific sequence, Lobar returns late one evening from a photo-shoot, only to realize that she has forgotten her own son’s birthday. Watching the scene, the audience furthermore realizes that she has actually failed to address a single word to her child for the entire duration of the film. Lobar’s self-ascription as mother is evidently weak: however adeptly she juggles her various dramatic personae, she has difficulty in determining which is that real version of self to which she bears ethical responsibility. Not that Lobar is alone here. Other characters appear similarly hard-pressed to distinguish between her actual and assumed selfhoods. A second particularly striking scene sees Lobar go to visit her elderly mother: hoping for affectionate communion, she instead finds that she has been ousted from the old woman’s maternal attachments by the scripted avatars of herself which are forever appearing on television. The fictionalized roles which Lobar performs do a better job of daughterhood than she herself is able.

And so the wounded actress turns to the one person in whom she can see herself intact: her putative former lover, that is, in whom the ravages of dementia have left a skein of selfhood even more fragile than her own. Quietly, tentatively, she once again befriends this halting, puzzled man, who alone makes no attempt to impose an identity upon her: and at the end of the film we see the two of them rocking on swings at a beach, taking mutual solace from one another’s gentleness.

sukunatUntil the director says cut, and the camera stops running, and the actress springs up and off the set. “Well done, everybody,” says the director. “Shooting is now finished.” The end? Almost. As the crew starts packing up, a young man appears. He is looking for his sister, he now says. He has some bad news for her.

A set of Chinese boxes, then: an afflicted actress playing an afflicted actress playing an afflicted… actress? Except that things are not quite so hermetic as that: there is a troubling seepage between the ostensibly fictive and real. In one sequence towards the end, for instance, we see the glowering husband in conference with the brother about the bad news that is awaiting the actress: a character apparently bookmarked within the fictional film, that is, shares narrative space with one who evidently stands outside. Pause for reflection. So that means, does it, that whereas those gentler scenes involving Lobar’s presumed lover are a self-contained fiction, those involving her husband, and her son, and her existential travails are as wrenchingly actual as we have feared? As with Michael Haneke’s Caché (2005), what we do is simply watch the film again, this time re-ascertaining the ontological status of its every constituent sequence. Lover, fictional: existential malaise, unfortunately not. But any such reckoning is swiftly frustrated: what are we to make, for instance, of one early sequence where Lobar appears to take a telephone call from her lover in her husband’s presence? There are slippages here, and elisions which do not quite make sense: rather than a set of Chinese boxes, what we find ourselves grappling with instead is a Möbius strip, or an Escher staircase. Director Yolqin To’ychiyev has evidently been reading his Pirandello; he has been watching his David Lynch.

That is not to say that fans of Mulholland Drive(2001) or even Inland Empire(2006) will find what they are looking for in Sukunat: To’ychiyev does not attempt anything like that economy of pleasure with which Lynch lures the viewer into his labyrinths. True, To’ychiyev takes a leaf from Lynch’s book in fetishizing lead actress Ra’no Shodiyeva qua object of the male gaze: but in narrative terms, at least, there is little to sugar To’ychiyev’s eerie pill. Lynch’s trick, like that of Haneke, David Cronenberg or the novelist Don DeLillo, is of course to seduce the audience with generic expectations which he then subverts. Whether by inclination or by the technical limitations of his mise-en-scène, To’ychiyev by contrast offers no such generic enticement into his hall of mirrors: as with the early films of Atom Egoyan, in Sukunat there is nothing other than remoteness and fracture. Sukunat is an easier film to admire than to enjoy.

sukunatBut it is certainly a film to admire. To’ychiyev and his director of photography Abduvohid G’aniyev do a quite extraordinarily accomplished job of using images to tell their story. G’aniyev’s camera is palpable: it lurks, it stalks, it lusts. In one outstanding sequence, Lobar becomes hysterical, and takes refuge in the changing room of some smart Tashkent clothes store: and as the camera glides coldly across the shop floor towards her trembling, curtained feet we could be watching a shot straight out of Todd Haynes’s magnificent [Safe] (1995). Its steely camerawork aside, the scene is brilliant also for a second reason: in situating Lobar’s breakdown within this emporium of consumerist choice, To’ychiyev effortlessly subverts that imagery of middle-class aspiration which has become a trope of modern Uzbek film-making. In capitulation to a domestic audience’s fantasies of socio-economic advance, countless films over the last few years have played themselves out against a soap-opera backdrop of wine bars and boutiques and burger joints. In Sukunat, by contrast, such consumer outlets are just that: outlets, gaudy signifiers of modernity set against a larger psychic geography which remains troubled and tattered and crumbling. As in [Safe], so too in Sukunat the implication is the same: our designer jeans do not protect us. Even if material progress exists, it does little to cure our woes.

Coming from an environment as teleologised as modern Uzbekistan, this is iconoclastic stuff. Nor does To’ychiyev’s iconoclasm end there. In the first few shots in the film, we see Lobar standing, regal, in the splendid courtyard of a Bukharanmadrasah; in the following sequence, we see her stumbling across the forecourt of some semi-derelict industrial plant. A single cut, then, from an alluring tourist-brochure image to an image both toxic and threatening: an icon tainted, as it were, by its proximity to a mug-shot. What is so clever here is that in setting up this tension between the commodified composition and the subversive one To’ychiyev is already anticipating a second, more substantial tension: that, of course, between Lobar’s aestheticised enactment of woe and our illicit glimpses of her private agony. Sukunat is a remarkably suggestive essay on the image, and on the ethics of spectatorship.

tuichevTechnically, the film is impressive. With a larger budget, Steadicam might have dispensed with some occasionally wobbly hand-held footage and given a clearer sense of privileged spectatorship: otherwise, however, To’ychiyev uses his resources adeptly. He makes particularly good use of the set for Lobar’s Tashkent apartment: a strange and chambered womb-like space, it has the same air of psycho-sexual malignance as do the locations in early Bertolucci, and it makes a fittingly suggestive backdrop to Lobar’s fraying sense of self. And the performances are uniformly outstanding. Luminous in her role as a woman very much in control of things, and then very much not, Ra’no Shodiyeva clearly deserves the lead in Olivier Assayas’s next film; in less showy roles as the men in her life, both Fotih Jalolov and Nozim To’laxo’jayev are marvelously craggy and wistful and pained. If Tolqin To’ychiyev’s sole directorial achievement had been to coax out the performances here on display, he would nevertheless have staked a claim to merit serious critical attention; as it is, in producing a film as lucid and ludic and dreamlike as Sukunat he has put forth a good claim to be counted the greatest film-maker currently working in Central Asia.

Thomas Welsford
All Souls College, Oxford

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Sukunat, Uzbekistan, 2008
Color, 74 minutes
Director and Screenwriter: Yolqin To’ychiyev
Director of Cinematography: Abduvohid G’aniyev
Cast: Ra’no Shodiyeva, Fotih Jalolov, Nozim To’laxo’jayev

Yolqin To’ychiyev: Silence (Sukunat, Uzbekistan, 2008)

reviewed by Thomas Welsford © 2009