Issue 31 (2011)
Khuat Akhmetov: Who Are You, Mister Ka? (Kto vy, gospodin Ka?, Kazakhstan 2010)
reviewed by Daniel H. Wild © 2011
An old, infirm man held prisoner in a Bangkok jail is released under mysterious circumstances. He boards a train to return to his homeland, but on his journey back his fate becomes strangely intertwined with that of a small-time drug dealer who is clearly in over his head. As the ailing traveler finds himself embroiled with a transnational network of narco-traffickers, he begins to reveal unexpected survival skills and becomes a powerful opponent determined to bring down the forces who have conspired against him and against the naïve young man under his unsolicited tutelage in Khuat Akhmetov’s new film. After his debut feature film Wind Man (Chelovek-veter, 2007), which has been called a “transnational mélange” and an “oddly anachronistic” magical realist film, Akhmetov's second feature marks a remarkable shift in genre (Alaniz).
Yet, despite its inquisitive and evocatively Kafkaesque title, Akhmetov’s film Who are you, Mister Ka? does not attempt to develop any meaningful argument about the place of an old man in a world no longer familiar to him or even about the question as to how it might be possible to maintain a sense of identity and decency in a new world defined exclusively by profit and brutal force. Instead, Akhmetov’s film poses the very mystery referenced by its title merely as a blatant means to provide solace through an overarching ideological solution because there are only categorical answers—not questions—in this film.
The narrative of the film is framed by two deaths of the same person. The first is a fictitious death, as the old prisoner, whom we will later get to know as “Ka Chen Wu,” is pronounced to have died in order for him to escape his Thai prison confinement. Having received mysterious instructions by the prison doctor, he puts his affairs in order somewhere in Bangkok and informs an old acquaintance that he will return to his homeland. The film cuts to the steppes of Kazakhstan, where Ka encounters Igor, a happy-go-lucky architecture student heading back to Almaty on the train.
The young lad grew up among Kazakhs and can still converse in a “queer” form of their language, but because of his restless nature, Igor is interested in traveling the world and thinks himself destined for greater plans. Ka, Igor tells him, reminds him of his grandfather and so he offers his thermos as a gift to Ka. Suspicious of his intentions, Ka inspects the thermos, and while Igor is out to charm fellow passengers on the train, Ka finds a stash of drugs. When Igor returns, he notices that the drugs are missing and confronts Ka, who has flushed them down the toilet. Angrily, Igor confesses that he intended to use Ka for his drug-running scheme, but that he only agreed to become a smuggler to help his cancer-stricken mother. Nonetheless, Igor warns Ka that they are now in this “mess” together because he no longer has any drugs to deliver.
This scenario sets up the film’s overall narrative, in which Igor and Ka descend together into the dangerous underworld of transnational criminal activities. In Almaty they are picked up by a motley crew of colorful gangsters who work for Meiram, the local kingpin of narco-trafficking. Meiram is incensed because he claims the drugs were worth five million dollars, but Ka is not fazed by his threats and merely replies that what they are doing is “dishonest”—much to the delight of Meiram’s group, who find Ka’s quaint insistence on the values of honesty and integrity amusing “Pioneer crap.”
While they are locked up in a dungeon, Ka surprises Igor by his ability to escape their prison cell and by his extraordinary skills in driving a getaway car. Their escape is thwarted by Meiram’s crew and Ka suffers a heart attack, but is revived by Igor. Ka is grateful for Igor’s help and companionship, so he insists that Igor accompany him when they are taken to be introduced to Meriam’s bosses, a strangely obsequious Kazakh, Kaldybai Makataevich nicknamed “Coca Cola,” and one Sergei Sergeevich from Moscow, whose jocund attitude masks a sinister character.
As Kaldybai extemporizes on the qualities of a Kazakh Tazi because it is a dog breed revered for its abiding loyalty to its master, Sergei reveals why he has summoned Ka. A police surveillance tape found by one of his informants in Bangkok shows Ka receiving a large shipment of drugs. Ka, Sergei asserts, is in fact the mysterious “Flowerman,” a powerful force in the Thai drug trade. Igor is devastated to hear that the old man he has grown fond of is exposed as a notorious crime lord, but Kaldybai and Sergei are delighted to have found him and propose a mutually beneficial business deal. If Ka can arrange for useful contacts with international drug rings, they offer to handle transportation via Kazakhstan to Moscow, where Sergei can facilitate the distribution into Europe. This would also clear Ka’s debt to them.
Ka refuses and claims he has quit “the game” because of his age. Sergei orders Meiram to “play golf” with Igor. Meiram’s crew buries Igor up to his neck in a pit and as they prepare to bludgeon his head with golf clubs, Ka interferes at the last minute and reluctantly agrees to the business deal. They arrive in Moscow at Sergei’s base of operations, the Russo-Asian Bank. From Moscow, Kaldybai and Ka travel to Afghanistan, where the reputation of the “Flowerman” commands great respect and contacts can be made among the Taliban.
Apparently unbeknownst to them, however, all their activities since Almaty have been continuously monitored and observed by an unknown group of surveillance specialists and a tracking device is installed in the truck transporting the drugs from Afghanistan at the Kyrgyz-Kazakh border. At the moment the drugs are to be transferred to Sergei’s henchmen, Igor is suspected to have made contact with an informer because the gang is wary that they are being monitored. The alleged informer’s throat is cut but Ka defends Igor and reluctantly agrees to a cynical offer by Sergei to play a game of chess, the winner of which will get to decide Igor’s fate.
As Ka and Igor are taken prisoner to return to Sergei’s bank, special forces raid Kaldybai’s luxurious home and his loyal Kazakh hound leads them to Meiram’s gang’s hideout in the countryside. The group members are shot, while Meiram and his lover escape to a yurt in the mountains. Surrounded by law enforcement, Meiram’s lover opens her hands and detonates a hand grenade. As Ka is forced to play his game of chess for Igor’s life, the police storm the bank. Ka wins the game but the deranged Sergei reneges on his promise and attempts to kill Igor. In a final confrontation, Ka kills Sergei by stabbing him in the eye with a chess piece, but is in turn felled by another heart attack. The despondent Igor cries out for his beloved loyal friend who saved his life and yet remained a mysterious stranger to him.
As Ka lies dying, a coda flashes back to Bangkok. It is revealed that Ka was a former Soviet KGB agent whose fate as a prisoner in Thailand had been unknown to the successive authorities. Having managed to get him out of prison, the authorities now need him for one final, nearly impossible mission: they need a native to infiltrate the gang of Kazakh narco-traffickers without arousing suspicion. As someone no one remembers in Kazakhstan, the agent will be given the back-story of drug dealer Ka Chen Wu from Bangkok. He is to establish contact with one of the gang’s drug hapless mules, Igor. The spirit of Ka returns to the grave of his father, begs for forgiveness, and he disappears into the dust of the Kazakh steppe, a native son home at last.
While the film ostensibly posits Ka as an enigmatic and dubious figure, his insistence on the importance of loyalty, honesty, and integrity make his character unequivocal and beyond reproach. Ultimately, the question as to who Ka really “was” is largely irrelevant, save, perhaps, to the grieving Igor. Nothing Ka does is in any way related to doubt and his dutiful sacrifice is the logical continuation of the virtue that a man must be true to his word. What matters far more, in the logic of the narrative, is not the character’s identity, but rather what he stood for or represented.
Thus, the film derives its power from fusing two modes of representation. One formal mode of representation is defined by the standards of contemporary international commercial cinema, with well-constructed action sequences and a fondness for sweeping camera vistas from above or a fetishizing view of gun fights, speeding car convoys, and all the other regular accoutrements of action movies. Secondly, its focus on the lone avenger ties the film to the genre tradition of the popular revenge fantasy film, the most famous of which is probably the series Death Wish I - V (spanning two decades from 1974 to 1994) with Charles Bronson.
In fact, the film’s insistence on identifying ‘self-evident” locations by title (“Moscow,” “Afghanistan,” “Kazakhstan,” “Bangkok”) seems rather belabored here unless we understand it as one of many attempts to align the film with such representational conventions established by American commercial cinema and the imaginary global scope of Hollywood. On an industrial level this makes sense, given that Kazakh film productions are striving very hard to move beyond the Kazakh New Wave that charmed the film festival circuit at the end of the century—the international box office disaster of Nomad (Kochevniki, dir. Sergei Bodrov, Ivan Passer, and Talgat Temenov, Kazakhstan 2006) notwithstanding.
Beyond this connection, however, the film’s representational politics are in service of the certainty of the process: no matter what the circumstances are, we can trust that the perspective of the film is aligned with Mister Ka’s understanding of what will happen because of the nature of his Kazakh character. This representation must therefore be allegorical by necessity.
On this level, the film becomes rather interesting because its inverse Orientalist projections of power onto the inscrutable other (Ka in the ostensible narrative logic of the film) is consistently re-imagined as the categorical embodiment of the Kazakh self: the virtue of the lone nomadic fighter who relies on the ancient virtues that have sustained the people of his homeland throughout generations. Ka’s fight against the criminals of a global narco-economy is merely a continuation of such loyalty to one’s innate character traits through all periods of suffering under different circumstances.
While the law is always present in the shadows as a force of surveillance, Ka is secure in the knowledge that his values must prevail even at the cost of his sacrifice. The stranger and outsider is revealed, quiet literally, to be the ultimate insider. In this regard, the film adds another representational dimension. Asanali Ashimov, the actor who plays Ka, is perhaps Kazakhstan’s most recognized national actor, as Julie Draskoczy has noted. Ashimov himself provided the idea for this film and we can understand Who are you, Mister Ka? as his continuation of a character type he has long embodied.
In The End of Ataman (Konets Atamana, dir. Shaken Aimanov, USSR 1970), an eastern loosely based on historical events, Ashimov played Red Army officer Chadiarov, born a Chinese prince, who succeeds in gaining the trust of the White army collaborator and counter-revolutionary ataman Dutov, infiltrates his command, and manages to liquidate him. The character of Chadiarov also appears in Trans-Siberian Express (Transsibirskii ekspress, dir. El'dor Urazbaev, USSR 1977), with both films in service of the narrative attempts to underpin the integration of Central Asia into the Soviet Empire, as Birgit Beumers has shown (Beumers: 38ff).
Whether narco-traffickers or the White Army, a loyal and faithful servant will endure in the face of change and fight any corrupting powers that emerge with the same determination throughout history. Such values are the ideological certainty and inevitability in the face of new realities and remain its constant principle. This, then, is the categorical answer throughout the film. What Mr. Ka delivers is not justice in the absence of the law but adherence to the law in the absence of justice. And those who remain loyal to this code will long be remembered for their unwavering service.
Daniel H. Wild
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Alaniz, José, Rreview of "Wind-Man", KinoKultura 21 (2008).
Beumers, Birgit. Nikita Mikhalkov: Between Nostalgia and Nationalism, London: I.B. Tauris, 2005.
Draskoczy, Julie. Review of "House by the Salty Lake" KinoKultura 11 (2006).
Who are You, Mister Ka?
Kazakhstan 2010, color, 90 min.
Directed by Khuat Ahmetov
Written by Ermek Tursunov and Khuat Ahmetov, based on an idea by Asanali Ashimov
Director of photography: Alexander Rubanov
Art director: Nigmat Dzhuraev
Sound producer: Oleg Petrenkin
Composer: Kuat Shildebaev
Producers: Venera Nigmatullina, Alidzhan Ibragimov
Production Company: Kazakhfilm, in collaboration with Izarus Film and Ermek Amanshaev
Cast: Asanali Ashimov, Phillip Voloshin, Aleksandr Feklistov, Talgat Temenov, Murat Bisembin, Gulsharat Dzhubaeva, Erzhan Tusupov, Daulet Abdigarapov.
Khuat Akhmetov: Who Are You, Mister Ka? (Kto vy, gospodin Ka?, Kazakhstan 2010)
reviewed by Daniel H. Wild © 2011