Thursday, April 04, 2019

MSPIFF ’19: The Song of the Tree

This is the first movie musical to be produced by the nation of Kyrgyzstan, but it as archetypal as films get. There are two brothers, one of whom will make a prodigal return. Of course, there are also musical numbers and some striking mountainous vistas in Aibek Daiyrbekov’s The Song of the Tree, which screens during the 2019 Minneapolis St. Paul International Film Festival.

Esen is rash and a bit undisciplined, but he is not a bad lad. Unfortunately, Bazarbai, the clan headman, is dead-set against Esen’s romance with his daughter Begimai, even though they are very much in love. Instead, the shallow headman has been deceived into favoring the loutish Oguz, who has often bested Esen through cheating. It gets to be more than the hot-headed brother can stomach, so he tries to elope with Begimai. Unfortunately, Oguz and his lackeys track them down, bringing her back to her father and leaving Esen for dead—but not dead enough.

Alas, Bazarbai’s pride will definitely goeth before his fall. It will be hastened by the desecration of a sacred prayer tree. Initially, Ogun frames Esen’s brother Asan for its destruction and subsequently murders him to cover up his misdeeds. Yet, their livestock continues to die, so the clan banishes Bazarbai and his immediate family. Meanwhile, Esen learns how to fight and control his temper from a wandering warrior.

Like most movie musicals, the course of true love never runs smooth in Song of the Tree, but eventually fate will intervene. Esen will face up to his love and his rival—and sing a few songs. Even though there is a samey consistency of tone throughout the Song of the Tree songbook, these tunes are way more polished than most viewers might expect. Frankly, this film works just as well as a big screen book musical as did The Last Five Years or LesMiserables.

Although Esen is supposed to be our rooting interest, Omurbek Izrailov is upstaged and then blown off the boards by the more intriguing character of Bazarbai and Temirlan Smanbekov’s richer, more complex performance. Zholdoshbek Apasov’s music and Baktygal Choturova’s lyrics definitely exceed expectations. It all sounds quite expansive and heartfelt. Yet, it is cinematographer Akzhol Bkbolotov who really gets to put his stamp on the film, thanks to its wildly cinematic locations and backdrops. It looks and sounds terrific, so we can easily forgive its narrative predictability.

There probably hasn’t been this much singing around horses since the heyday of Gene Autrey and Roy Rogers. It also must have the record all to itself for musical numbers staged in yurts. Yet, it is all pretty universal and largely quite compelling. Recommended for fans of folkloric cinema and nontraditional musicals, The Song of the Tree screens this Sunday (4/7), Monday (4/15), and Tuesday (4/16), as part of this year’s MSPIFF.