Serik Aprymov, The Hunter [Okhotnik] (2004)
reviewed by Michael Rouland©2005
Returning to the familiar theme of village life, Serik Aprymov offers a beautifully rendered Kazakh interpretation of the classic coming-of-age film in The Hunter (2004). With his mingling of music and mythology, Aprymov provides arguably his most ambitious film to date. Urban, village, and nomadic worlds collide in the life of one young boy, Erken, who struggles to find his own path through them. As a whole, The Hunter tests the boundaries of the “Kazakh New Wave” and explores the competing cultural influences around the Kazakh aul, or village.
In his previous films, Aprymov presented pessimistic insights into the life of the Kazakh aul. His first student film exercise, A Morning of a Manager of Construction Workers (Utro proraba, 1985), utilized a kind of manufactured realism to reproduce the sensation of the aul. His first feature, Last Stop (Konechnaia ostanovka, 1989), was described by critics as “the first perestroika film” and staged cinematic realism with the feel of a documentary to expose rampant drunkenness and poverty. Aprymov evoked his disillusionment with his childhood ideal by reproducing his return to a village from which he was increasingly alienated. Last Stop resolutely attacked the social norms of village life and especially highlighted the decay of the system of respect for elders. Turning to the imagination and mythmaking of an elderly train conductor, who sets up trains for the local airbase to use as target practice, Aprymov’s Three Brothers (Tri brata, 2000) reveals a youthful quest to overcome innocence as destined for destruction.
Aprymov engages the trope of the corruption of the city in contrast to the preservation of values in the aul. He is particularly sensitive to these polarities: after leaving his native Aksuat at the age of thirteen, Aprymov came to view his own village through the eyes of an outsider. His new film, however, demonstrates a reconsideration of this relationship. While the village does not necessarily play a positive role in the film, it draws the characters in with its gravitational pull. Urban and nomadic life feed on its vitality and commerce.
The film opens with camera angles repeating the aesthetic practices of an American Western: the mounted hero galloping across Kazakh valleys is shown first in long shots, then in profile, and finally in close-up. Accompanied by a Kazakh mouth harp, the traditionally pastoral instrument of the Kazakhs, the “hunter” is introduced as a typical outsider loved by one woman in town and misunderstood by the rest. The first village scene illustrates a meeting of archetypes―the collectivity of elders, children, and women against the three outcasts―the otherworldly hunter, the fallen woman, and the orphaned child, Erken.
Tension breaks the austerity of the aul when the hunter spends the night with Erken’s adoptive mother. The young Erken steals the hunter’s horse and gun, and he takes out his anger by vandalizing the local store with his newly acquired gun. The haplessness of the local police is rendered in caricature with exaggerated sirens and the query: “By the way, do you have enough gas today?” Reflecting the invasiveness of village life and the lack of respect for unmarried women, the police chief walks straight into the house of Erken’s mother to question her about the incident.
In rather simplistic terms, Erken escapes to the mountains rather than attending “reform school” and chooses nature’s liberation over civilization’s constraints. The hunter, who warns “you’ll either head to the hills with me or go to prison,” supports his rejection of society as the film blends images of the mountains and an eagle flying above them with the music of the dombïra. There is no ambiguity about where the director’s sympathy resides. In the mountains Erken begins his journey to manhood, learning the beauty and power of nature in order to take the place of the hunter when he is ready. Imparting Kazakh steppe wisdom through the voice of the hunter that “life exists along the riverbank” and that “the hills are never empty,” Aprymov expands our awareness of life between the stationary aul and migrating nomads. Through this, Aprymov evokes the folkloric tale of the Grey Wolf, or Bozkurt, that bonds Turkic tribes to a common mythical lupine ancestor based in the Altai region. Notably, this is the region to which the hunter traces his own roots. The linking of the hunter to the totemic wolf, his elusive five-toed counterpart, recalls this ancient Turkic wolf-ancestor belief and underlines the pre-Islamic culture of Kazakhstan. In contrast to Tolomush Okeev’s classic, The Fierce One (Liutyi, 1973), a realistic film about a boy’s relationship with a wolf that he raises from a cub, Aprymov is less interested in the savagery of animals in the clash between man and nature than in understanding the social interactions between characters from their respective cultural milieux. Nevertheless, both directors express the beauty of the Central Asian mountain landscape and masterfully allow the panorama a significant role in their films.
The portrayal of women in this film reflects a larger deficiency in Central Asian cinema, where directors have chosen to create blank canvasses of gender stereotypes rather than complex characters in their own right. While the mother remains static in a state of lost virtue, which is left entirely unexplored in the film, we see the hunter as a dynamic sexual predator. Aprymov’s deliberately tantalizing encounter with the rootless modern scientist, who takes measurements in the mountains and sleeps in a Russian-style tent, reinforces the hunter’s Kazakh virility while simultaneously referencing the traditional game Kyz kuu, a game of pursuit between the sexes played on horses. The itinerant Kazakh hunter conquers the urbane Kazakh scientist. Searching for “warmth” that will return meaning to his life, Erken by contrast finds love in the form of another man’s bride. He even sits down in the man’s tent; the husband, unable to chastise him, chooses to sing instead:
Your face aglow
Disturbed my peaceful thoughts
I regret that I met you so late
That I won’t see you forever…
I see the moon in your face
I love you dearly, you are my angel
If only I’d met you before
In my frisky younger days…
Here the husband laments his time lost, as well as his wife’s youth. Through the portrayal of this impotent but virtuous Kazakh nomad, Aprymov challenges the vitality of pastoralism and glorifies the hunter who moves freely between the nomadic and the sedentary worlds.
Time plays a particularly important role in the film. As the story unfolds, time accelerates from one day… to two… then through weeks, months, and finally years. With this movement of time, Aprymov leads the viewer through a contrasting tale of transformation and stasis within the Kazakh village. The permanence of nature, the aul, the shaman, and social networks are juxtaposed against the evolution of the mother figure, the hunter, and Erken. After half a year of self-exploration and education in the mountains, Erken seeks redemption in his village and submits to his incarceration. And following several more years of being imprisoned in the controlled urban space of a modern penitentiary, Erken returns to the mountains again to become a hunter in his own right.
If the biting satire and cinema verité of Last Stop were markers of the “Kazakh New Wave,” then The Hunter seems to indicate a return to the earlier cinematic values and national pride evident in the films of the 1960s. Searching for identity in contemporary Kazakhstan, Aprymov’s mentors in this work are clearly Chingiz Aitmatov and Tolomush Okeev. Set within the confines of post-Soviet realities, Aprymov suggests the resurrection of ancient Kazakh social institutions and the link between the otherworldly and the mundane through the fortune-teller and the shaman, who exist on the fringes of village life. Ultimately, the desire to comprehend the beauty of nature remains the aspiration of our hero in Aprymov’s cinematic call to the audience to rethink their modern mores. If only Kazakks went to see Kazakh films….
Michael Rouland, Stanford University
The Hunter [Okhotnik] (Kazakhstan/Japan/France, 2004)
Color, 93 minutes
Director: Serik Aprymov
Screenplay: Serik Aprymov
Cinematography: Hasan Kidiraliev, Boris Troshev, and Bolat Syleev
Soundtrack: Ali Ahmadiev and Aliia Mirzacheva
Music: Kazbek Spanov
Art Director: Umirzak Shmanov
Cast: Dogdurbek Kidiraliev (Erken), Alibek Zhuasbaev (Hunter), Gulnaz Omarova (Mother)
Executive Producer: Gulmira Aprymova,
Executive Producer (France): Abderrahmane Sissako
Director of Production (France): Benoit Joseph Choix
Director of Production (Japan): Ueda Makoto
Production: East Cinema (Kazakhstan), Kazakhfilm Studio, NHK (Japan), Cinenomad (France)
Funding Sources: French Ministry of Culture, Centre National de la Cinématographie, French Ministry of Foreign Affairs, MonteCinemaVerite Foundation (Switzerland), Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation, and the Hubert Balls Fund (Netherlands).
Serik Aprymov, The Hunter [Okhotnik] (2004)
reviewed by Michael Rouland©2005