Friday, May 18, 2018

SIFF ’18: Suleiman Mountain

History and religion have not been kind to Kyrgyzstan. They are still stuck with the trappings and infrastructure of the mid-1980s Communist era, while chauvinistic attitudes keep them from evolving into a modern society. The nation is overwhelmingly Muslim, but there is also a shamanistic tradition. Unfortunately, many now equate shamanism with fakery. Karabas and his first wife Zhipara are partly to blame for that. When they reunite, they start pulling some of their old scams together, much to the consternation of his new second life. There isn’t a sitcom on network TV that reflects this not-so modern family unit, perhaps because its long-term viability is not such a sure thing in Elizaveta Stishova’s Suleiman Mountain (trailer here), which screens during the Seattle International Film Festival.

When Zhipara finds her long-lost son Uluk in an orphanage, Karabas welcomes them both back into his unstable life. In the meantime, he also married the now-pregnant Turaganbubu, but polygamy remains an acceptable practice in “modern” Kyrgyzstan. She wants nothing to do with Uluk and Zhipara, but Karabas is fiercely loyal to his son. Yet, he is so gruff and generally irresponsible, he ends up crushing all the boy’s expectations. Frankly, Karabas is not much, but Kyrgyzstani society is such that both Zhipara and Turaganbubu believe they need him as a protector.

Named for the spiritually and geologically significant landmark, Suleiman Mountain takes viewers to an exotic locale, rarely seen in film, but gives them a distinctly gritty, hardscrabble view of life there. Everyone in Kyrgyzstan has it hard, but Karbas’s invariably bad decisions always make things worse. Despite his somewhat picaresque nature, it is often painful to watch his corrosive influence on the people around him. Yet, there is no denying the film’s raw energy and unvarnished honesty.

Asset Imangaliev is so believably self-centered and self-sabotaging as Karabas, viewers will want to pummel him, after only twenty minutes. Turgunay Erkinbekova similarly comes across utterly naturally as the confused and resentful Turganbubu. Yet, Perizat Ermanbetova towers above everyone as the weary but resourceful Zhipara.

S Mountain is the sort of film that feels very docu-like, even though it tells a fictional narrative. It is also a rather remarkable depiction of motherhood and parenthood, for reasons that are too complicated to explain. It has virtually zero commercial prospects, because it is not a film that files down rough edges or sugar-coats anything, but it very definitely invites viewers to walk in the shoes of people very different from us. Recommended for anyone intrigued by the Central Asian Republics, Suleiman Mountain screens today (5/18) and Sunday (5/20), as part of this year’s SIFF.