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Adilkhan Yerzhanov's quirky child organ theft drama is highly stylised, violent and visually arresting; it's almost a samurai film - from the 53rd International Film Festival Rotterdam

Inspired by (and structured through quotes from) the famed German novel of the same name by Hermann Hesse, Steppenwolf is, in its plot, essentially a samurai flick with a telegraphed conclusion. The film is set amidst 2022 Kazakh unrest known as Bloody January, though it mostly places itself above the politics, probably for obvious censor related reasons; the political setting in no way is essential to the specifics of the plot, even if the film does a good job capturing the relentless chaotic violence of the mass protests and the police retaliation where 227 people were killed and almost 10,000 people were arrested. A former convict, Brayuk (Berik Aitzhanov), seeks revenge on Taha (the mysterious and goonish big-bad guy who goes without a face for most of the film) for burning his family alive and Tamara (Anna Starchenko), a mute Slavic woman, looks for her missing child. Brayuk seems to believe Taha kidnapped her child — as part of a child organ theft business. Or, more accurately, he uses this as an excuse to mete a violent justice to the both the lawless criminals and useless cops that get in the way. Most of the time, the criminals are at the receiving end of his fists (or whatever non-weapon he uses as a weapon, such as a pair of scissors).

Adilkhan Yerzhanov, one of the most prolific directors in Central Asia, manages to capitalise on the same quirky energy, niche personality types and dorky panache associated with Wes Anderson, while also issuing his own approach over the years. His style is marked by genre iconography, empty landscapes with a peppering of strong colour, and unpleasant violence that almost devests the enjoyment out of the action tradition.

The two make an odd pair. Brayuk sees the world in lens imparted to him by violence of the past; Tamara, by contrast, clings to a hope of a safe future with her child. Starchenko doesn’t have much to work with and that’s not just because the character is mute and in shock. The part reduces her to a passive mother in a man’s world, though the actor does well enough with the part she’s been given. Her Tamara is mono-focused on the rescue of her boy, but her road-trip partner — with a cause as equally emotionally resonate for finding Taha — casually tosses around misogynistic jokes and, in jest, pretends to have a stuffed animal dog perform road-head on him while driving. Brayuk also doesn’t shield Tamara from his violent inclinations and, at least once, hits her.

Religion adds a somewhat puzzling and intriguing aspect to the film, one that helps sustain a vision of hope. Tamara’s introduction comes before an icon of the bloodied Christ on the cross, to which editors Arif Tleuzhanov and Yerzhanov either clumsily or ingeniously analogise with bloodied police shields. Tamara later prays in the face of violence and Brayuk borrows the prayer in something of a moment of private remorse (even though it doesn’t prevent him from further bloodshed). Even the low murmur of a voice she talks with is indistinguishable from a praying voice. Perhaps the most religious moment comes in the film’s final denouement, an act that is more telegraphed than it is foreshadowed through the quotes from Hesse’s novel, as a self-imposed damnation in recognition of what is basically mass murder.

Like Yerzhanov’s most famous film, Yellow Cat (2020), Steppenwolf interrogates the relationship between comedy and violence. I’m not sure there is a conclusive approach through the director’s filmography. Each film tackles the relationship on its own right and, I’d argue, the filmmaker leaves the meat of that relationship to be reflected on by his viewers. In this case, I think it saves the film from propagating the disgusting hero that the action genre has become so prone to. “Good is necessary. Please help. You’re a kind person. Please help,” pleas Tamara to Brayuk just before the film’s final bloodbath. She’s wrong — he’s not a kind person — and no observant viewer would never mistake him for such. His humor and immature won’t allow that.

Intentional or not, the addition of the cockeyed jokester to the determined super-killer turns the character into something unbearable. Tamara can barely mutter syllables after uncovering a supply of child organs, unsure of whether or not her child has been mutilated. Brayuk responds that something is clear, “Someone was heartless today”. In the English translation, the double entendre that makes the joke funny to someone like Brayuk is also what makes it so heartless. What kind of vile person jokes to a mother about her potentially dead child’s organs? And it’s precisely in this humour that Yerzhanov questions the (violent) heroic tradition that staples together the genres he loves so much, especially the samurai film. Not unrelatedly, the action of violence is so often so visceral and crunching that it effectively performs a kenosis of the spectacle. The crushing of an arm by the weight of a car or the de-membering of fingers via an office fan are so perturbing that it forces the viewer to tense or even turn away. The delight of moving bodies is replaced with the mechanical execution of those bodies.

Most interesting is what this says about us as viewers. Have we become so desensitised to cinematic violence — so often presented for its spectacle (kineticism, the dance of action choreography) but without the consequences (blood, broken bones, spewing guts) — that only words can cut so deep?

Steppenwolf has just premiered st the 53rd International Film Festival Rotterdam.

By Joshua Polanski - 31-01-2024

Joshua Polanski is a freelance film and culture writer who writes regularly for the Boston Hassle and In Review Online, while also contributing to the Bay Area Reporter, and Off Screen amongst a varie...

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