1989 // Kazakhstan // Ermek Shinarbayev
Criterion Collection (LINK)
The first Kazakh film I ever watched is Emir Baigazin’s Harmony Lessons in 2013 which I absolutely love, but thereafter regrettably I have yet encountered any more films from that region where diverse cultural heritage and ethnic origins are shared. Revenge, also known as The Red Flute, was a film made with the support from Soviet Union and was later screened in the Un Certain Regard section at the 1991 Cannes Film Festival. Revenge became one of the exemplar of Kazakh New Wave, which coincide with the perestroika in the Soviet Union of the 1980s, and the film was the first that deals with the tragedies experienced by the Korean population in Kazakhstan and Central Asia.
Even though with all these Korean “Asian-looking” characters, as far as I recognized, they spoke in Russian dialect and only at the last scene where two Korean women walking side by side along the seashore, we could finally hear the Korean language, albeit being overlapped by the narrator’s translation. The dislocated use of language is as perplexing as the disjointed time-frame throughout the entire film. Apparently the prologue took place at an ancient time as the the costumes and the set (a palace?) had shown. The story is started wtih Sungu (Aleksandr Pan), a poet befriended with the young king, decided to leave the palace as he found the king’s unforgiving nature taking away his inspiration for poetry.
After the prologue, the film is divided into seven chapters, or tales as the title card stated, and each focused on a single character or, in the last two chapters, a single symbolic term. The main narrative thread is, as the title hinted, about a revenge. A boy named Sungu (who would grow up as the same poet from the prologue?) was born with a sole purpose, to kill Yan (Nikolai Tacheyev) in order to avenge his sister’s death. The story spanned across decades, starting from the murder of the sister and the failed revenge attempt of the child’s father, old Tsai (Kasym Zhakibayev). And mysteriously, the story ended up at a possible contemporary time (as late as the late 19th century I guessed as steam locomotive appeared), with the grown-up Sungu finally reached the house of Yan and experienced the meaning of revenge.
Instead of an intense avenging thriller, Revenge would rather be an atmospheric, fragmented collection of tales where characters were introduced and disappeared with no observable reason, like Sungu’s inspirational mentor or Yan’s wife. Yet their present were nonetheless significant in the intermingled relationship as a whole, which also added an extra layer of supernatural element to the story. Unavoidably, with the obscure storytelling and enigmatic characters and timeline, I am utterly confused when the film ends even though I thoroughly enjoy it. Overall, an easy recommendation to anyone interested in world cinema, I suppose there are more hidden gems in Central Asia Cinema and they are waiting to be discovered.