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Wednesday, November 26, 2008



Just got back from STRIZH at the TOKYO FILMeX. The 2nd film I saw at the festival. I was watching this film in a perpetual state of annoyance and anger. It had nothing to do with the film itself but what happened to me during the screening.

Though I've recovered from my flu, I've been coughing badly. So I coughed during the screening, and a woman sitting few seats away from me whispered 'please stop it' (yamete kudai) to me.

Stop what? Stop coughing? Gee, thanks a lot for being so thoughtful. She made it seem as if I COUGHED IN PURPOSE during the freaking screening. And what did she do? I covered my mouth when I coughed after that, and her? She was dozing during the film, and struggling to stay awake, so what? Miss Moral Police asked me to STOP COUGHING so she could doze off during the film?

Hence my annoyance. Hence the anger. It's not as if I was the only one coughing, hell, there were a few people around us who were coughing pretty badly as the film went on. I didn't see her standing up and asking them to STOP. COUGHING. Well lady, thanks a lot, I'm sure you're very proud of yourself, maybe when you see a guy in a wheelchair, you'll ask that guy to please stand up to walk, maybe when you see an amputee, you'll ask them to grow some limbs, jeez.

The humiliation I underwent pissed me off in the same way Ainur, the heroine of Strizh, a petulant tomboy, is annoyed with most people around her. Unhappy with the chaotic situation in the house she shares with her heavily pregnant mother and alcoholic stepfather, she spends most film wandering around Almaty, the former capital of Kazakhstan. Perhaps her only solace is her cleaner dad.

In many ways, this film reminded me of Bresson's Mouchette and Truffaut's 400 Blows, in fact, this film shared many plot elements with the former (aside from that that, Ainur also lies about her mom's death to skip classes, like Antoine Doinel did in 400 Blows), I almost wanted to ask director Abai Kulbai whether Mouchette was a major influence when he was writing his debut feature. It's about a girl who had been left behind by the rapidly developing modern society, a familiar subject matter and theme in independent films.

This coming-of-age film is familiar, yet exotic because of the culture and locale portrayed onscreen. This is probably the very first Kazakhstan film I've ever seen (frankly, it's probably the main reason why I wanted to catch this film), and the Kazakhstan here is nothing like Borat's! Director Abai Kulbai said that the film was shot during the transition from winter to spring, when the snow is thawing and the first flowers are growing, in order to mirror the emotions of the protagonist, and also her growth. Inessa Kislova, a newcomer Abai Kulbai discovered from his old school, has a strong screen presence that makes the film engaging to watch. Under the hands of a lesser actress with lesser charisma, film would definitely have fallen apart, but I'm stating the obvious here.

Film's shot in HD, and the snow scenery's beautiful. Standout scene for me is when Ainur and a classmate rides a funicular and watches the city of Almaty from above. It's shot with a fish-eye lens, so city is distorted into looking very fantastical, a contrast to the normal, gritty and realistic blandness in other parts of the film.

Director Abai Kulbai during Q and A session for 'STRIZH' at Tokyo Filmex
Director Abai Kulbai during Q and A session for 'STRIZH' at Tokyo Filmex

Like I said, despite my familiarity with its premise, the settings and culture I see are really fresh to me. And during the Q and A session, many questions about Kazakhstan (instead of the film itself) was asked. Reminds me a little of The Elephant And The Sea screening at the Santiago International Film Fest in Chile last year, when audiences showed utmost curiosity towards Malaysian culture and its film industry. Kazakhstan looks interesting because it seems like a fusion of the east and the west, people who look remarkably Oriental, and also those who look Caucasian, Ainur's mom looks Asian, while her dad, based on other reviews I read, is a Russian, so being of (maybe) mixed heritage, makes her an even bigger outsider? Just assumption.

Strizh means 'shorn' or 'haircut'. Film begins with Ainur getting a boy-like haircut at the barber's. In classroom, a classmate takes her baseball cap and writes "Shorn Bitch" (strizhenaia suka, the subtitles I saw was 'bitch with haircut') on it with a correction pen. She blots out the writing with her own correction pen, leaving only the word 'strizh' (shorn/ haircut). A deeper and much more knowledgeable analysis and review of the film can be read here. But it's heavy with spoilers.