Kelin (Tursunov, 2009): Kazakhstan

Reviewed by Skylar Harrison. Viewed at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival, Metro 4 Theatre.

Kelin, meaning daughter-in-law, was written and directed by first timer, Ermek Tursunov. The film, shot in the snowy mountains of Kazakhstan, visually shows the audience a new primal world, filled with foreign rituals and customs. Kelin, set in fourth century AD, is boldly rich in setting and Kazakhstan’s nomadic culture; however, with its far from original storyline and underdeveloped main character, Kelin (Gulsharat Zhubyeva), this cinematic experience was more like watching the Discovery Channel than a feature film. Surprisingly, it is not the dialogue stripped screenplay that hinders the characters’ development but the straightforward and almost predictable (to the point of losing interest) storyline.

Kelin is a women’s film, sharing universal perspectives of a wife, mother, and daughter-in-law. The plot begins with Kelin, the most beautiful woman in her village, being married off to a wealthy shepard (Nurymbet) and forced to forget her true but poor love Mergyen (Kystykbaev). Kelin and her husband then set out on a snowy voyage heading toward her new home, where her husband’s mother and younger brother await their arrival. Before the newly married couple makes it home, they set up camp to spend the night, and her husband semi forces sex upon Kelin. It is here that the overt sexuality of the film starts, and without any dialogue and scarce music, sexual grunts fill up the majority of the film’s soundtrack.

Once Kelin arrives at her new home, slowly but surely she warms to her new environment, as she begins accepting her new husband (mostly because she has now found immense pleasure in sex). Her mother-in-law is clearly a chief like commander of the home with a strong connection to the mystical powers of nature, and her brother-in-law is a charming little brother type on the verge of puberty. All is well in the new family, evident by the somehow kinder grunts, until Kelin’s old love appears in a forest blanketed with snow, clearly intending and prepared to battle the other man for Kelin.

The roles women play in Kelin compose the themes of this film, and the camera movements only emphasize their significance. We first meet Kelin, through shots which make the viewer an active participant in objectifying the soon to be bride. In tight shots, the camera pans up and down Kelin’s naked body, as she passively stands allowing other women to primp her to be given away. This same objectifying pan happens after Kelin and her husband have sex for the first time. Now in a horizontal pan, the camera slowly captures her bare skin after forceful sex. Up until now, Kelin is simply a female puppet being dressed up for her husband and then used for his desires.

However, once Kelin finds pleasure in sex and her mother-in-law is introduced in the plot, the female/male dynamics completely shift. The mother-in-law is blatantly the ruler of the home with her brute strength and vicious scowl. Now, with a mother figure in the picture, the husband, who once seemed brutal and cold, simply seems passive. Kelin sheds an honest light on women, hinting that all women can either be passive objects or powerful leaders. By the film’s end, we barely recognize the once shy and timid Kelin because she has chosen her role as a strong minded female. Although this film was set in fourth century AD, even women today can come away with a lesson: it is partly the society that shapes a woman’s role, but mainly an individual’s strength.

Regardless of the profound gender dynamics found in this film, they were diminished by the lack of interest in Kelin’s character; Zhubayeva, without dialogue to portray emotion, fell flat with monotone expressions and no personal insight. The younger brother, however, saved the film from flat lining with many humors moments, not surprisingly ones dealing with sex.

Kelin, on the Oscar short list for foreign language film, is rich in universal themes, cinematography, and culture, yet the actors and plot do not live up to its counterparts.

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