Issue 54 (2016)

Erlan Nurmukhambetov: Walnut Tree (Zhanghaq tal, Kazakhstan, 2015)

reviewed by Beach Gray© 2016

walnut treeErlan Nurmukhambetov’s Walnut Tree received the New Currents Award at the Busan International Film Festival in South Korea (Kil 2015) and the Critics Jury Award at the Vesoul Asian International Film Festival in France; and importantly, it won the Tulpar Award for Best Film at the first awards of the Kazakh National Academy of Cinema Arts and Sciences (30 September 2016). It is not just a festival film for foreign eyes, however, and has been released in theaters across Kazakhstan (Baizhanova 2016). The film occupies a unique place in contemporary Kazakh cinema in that it neither wholly glorifies nor disparages life in Kazakhstan. It is distinct from the recent nationalist blockbusters that extol Kazakh history and identity, and the most recent strain of Kazakh art cinema—led by the “Partisan Cinema” group—that focuses on social inequalities in contemporary Kazakh society. 

The film concerns the illegal, yet still common traditional practice of bridenapping in Central Asian countries. The plot follows a young couple, Aisulu and Gabit. Gabit, with Aisulu’s consent, bridenaps Aisulu. Gabit comes from a poor family and Aisulu from a wealthy one. Aisulu’s father and male relatives interrupt the wedding to take Aisulu back home. Aisulu proclaims her love for Gabit, runs away, and her father backs down. The remainder of the film features the “legitimate” wedding, and the birth of Aisulu and Gabit’s first child. It concludes with Aisulu’s second pregnancy and implied family bliss.

walnut treeThe plot is secondary to the slow pacing and cinema-vérité style of the film. It was shot on a small budget in Lenger, a small town in southern Kazakhstan, and features local actors from the Shanshar Theater (Shtriter 2016). The palette of the film has the muted greens, pastel blues, and earthy browns, yellows, and reds of late summer and early autumn. The framing favors medium shots of the interactions among characters, and long shots of the wedding and the landscape. Takes are long, but not overtly so.

The preparations for Aisulu and Gabit’s marriage reveal the series of kinship connections that link all of the work of the village: the military, the courts, the municipal government, the hospital, the local restaurant, and the wedding entertainment industry. Although the romance between Aisulu and Gabit organizes the plot, the actual protagonist is the aul, the village where the action takes place. The ever-abundant walnut tree is a symbol for the life of the village, which continues year after year (the film would suggest) in a benevolent relationship to its “natural” surroundings.

walnut tree The film, though, is a comedy after all. It is full of light satire that gingerly pokes fun at several characters, regardless of social status. The pompous doctor is shown in a house full of portraits of various khans. He even dons a khan’s outfit, replete with hat, robe, and staff. He sits at home in an easy chair as if it were a throne and quickly changes clothes when a patient comes to visit. This type of light satire is not just for the top of the social hierarchy, but it also extends to the wedding caterers. Their boss chastises them for stealing food. When a lamb carcass is brought to them to prepare for the wedding banquet, they promptly cut a sizeable portion off for themselves and smuggle it out of the kitchen. The film softly ridicules village life more broadly. When Gabit plans to bridenap Aisulu, he visits a friend to borrow a motorcycle. The two then head on the motorcycle to borrow a car from a second friend. The car breaks down, and Gabit is “late” to bridenap Aisulu. When they finally get the car running again, Aisulu and Gabit are comically juxtaposed with the two additional friends in the car. No event in the village is private—not even the mock bridenapping.

walnut treeAlthough the film lightly satirizes rural life in Kazakhstan, it nevertheless mythologizes this Kazakh aul. The village is idealized to embody pure Kazakh-ness. The entire film is in the Kazakh language with very little spoken Russian. Every resident of the aul is ethnically Kazakh. No global brands for even the most basic commodity goods are shown. The women wear traditional dresses and the men uniforms or suits. It is an encapsulated Kazakh world that claims to be full of verisimilitude. It is so “pure,” though, as to be a bit artificial. In the constructed world of the film, injustices exist but are resolved easily. At first Aisulu and Gabit cannot marry because of class differences; they end up getting married. Aisulu is stuck in the hallway of the hospital as she prepares to give birth; after a series of meetings and telephone calls she receives a room. The judge who assists in this latter process is not above doing favors through personal connections. He is, however, just. In one episode, he decides to sentence a defendant to two years in court. Exchanged glances between the male defendant and a woman in the courtroom—both physically injured—suggest that there has been an incident of domestic violence that the man now regrets and for which he is being appropriately sentenced. Even the pompous doctor who works under the table out of his home is punished when his house burns down. The incident is more comical than terrifying, especially since the arsonist is a young girl who seems to be fulfilling the collective wish of the village. She asks for gasoline from a soldier. He grants it to her after she tells him that she plans to burn down the doctor’s house. The soldier not only approves, but he also asks the girl if she needs matches to complete the job.

In addition to this construction of an idealized “purely” Kazakh space, the film lacks biting satire. Everyone has work. People may be poor, but no one is desperate. The mayor has somewhat disturbing dreams, but they are only dreams, adding a comedic effect for the audience. There are elements of absurdism in the episode between the soldier and the young arsonist and in the mayor’s two dreams; however, any potential violence is snubbed out before it begins. In this way, the film is in between genres in relation to both its valence and target audience. It is neither only a festival film for foreign eyes nor merely a popular film distributed to a national audience.

This hybridity is mirrored in the life and career of the director himself, Nurmukhambetov. Although he studied under Darezhan Omirbaev as an assistant, he cannot properly be called a Kazakh New Wave director since he did not make films in the 1990s. He does not represent the latest trends in Kazakh art cinema, such as the Partisan Cinema group that makes low budget films with considerably biting social critique. In these films, characters find themselves removed from a community and family in a hostile urban setting. Nurmukhambetov’s age (42) puts him almost between these two generations. In one way, he is typical Kazakh filmmaker in that he has expertise in many areas, such as sound technology and scriptwriting, and has made a career by working in both cinema and television (“Erlan Nurmukhambetov”). In another way, he is unique as a director who has bridged the divide between festival and popular film in Kazakhstan. It is a refreshingly new space.

Beach Gray
University of Pittsburgh

Comment on this article on Facebook

Works Cited

“Erlan Nurmukhambetov,” Brodvei.

 Baizhanova, Galiia. 2016. “Komediia o budniakh na iuge Kazakhstana ocharovala pervykh zritelei—v prokate ‘Orekhovoe derevo,’” informbiuro 1 April.

Kil, Sonia. 2015. “Busan: ‘Immortal,’ ‘Walnut Tree’ Share Top Prizes,” Variety 9 October.

Shtriter, Elena. 2016. “‘Orekhovoe derevo’: istoriia iz zhizni iuzhnokazakhstanskoi glubinki,” Kursiv 31 March.

Walnut Tree (Zhanghaq tal), Kazakhstan, 2015
Color, 81 minutes
Director: Erlan Nurmukhambetov
Script: Erlan Nurmukhambetov
Cinematography: Murat Nugmanov
Production Design: Beken Narbai
Composer: Sultan Abet
Editing: Aibol Kasymzhanov
Cast: Rustem Zhaniamanov, Balnur Asyl, Nurzhan Zhumanov, Asylbek Musabekov
Producer: Erzhan Akhmetov
Production: Kazakhfil'm, Kadam

Erlan Nurmukhambetov: Walnut Tree (Zhanghaq tal, Kazakhstan, 2015)

reviewed by Beach Gray© 2016

Updated: 08 Oct 16