The River (Ozen) *** Venice Film Festival 2018 | Orizzonti

September 5th, 2018
Author: Meredith Taylor

Dir/scr: Emir Baigazin. Kaz-Pol-Nor. 2018. 108mins

This spare and rhythmic final film in Kazakh auteur Emir Baigazin’s Asian trilogy serves as a simple but mesmerising metaphor for the dangers of the digial world exploring themes of repression, release and discovery in a remote corner of Kazakhstan.

Following on from Harmony Lessons (Uroki Garmonii,2013) and The Wounded Angel (Ranenyy Angel, 2016), The River (Ozen) captivates with its austere and gracefully composed sequences in a parable that seethes with expectation throughout its spare dramatic arc establishing its appeal to arthouse audiences from the opening scenes when we first meet the brothers in their dusty, windswept village where earthy sepia and bleached khaki prevails in Baigazin’s stark aesthetic.  

Five brothers cower under the obdurate cosh of their draconian father (Kuandyk Kystykbayev) who imposes a spartan regime of hard work and strict discipline. Like many austere fathers his intentions are protectionist rather than cruel, and the reason for this will soon become clear when a newcomer arrives in the village to disrupt the peaceful existence.

The oldest son Aslan (Zhalgas Klanov) is expected to act as second in command to his father and teach his brothers how to read and write. Unlike his father he offers some light relief to his siblings allowing them to swim in the fast-flowing river nearby, the benefits of nature are clear and the dangers self-apparent, Meanwhile in the outside world beyond their home the benefits of progress are more ambiguous,

This questionable garden of Eden is soon destabilised when Kanat (Eric Tazabekov) breezes into the village one day. Dressed in flashy yellow socks and a silver anorak, this bright young stranger also rocks a pair of headphones and carries a bleeping tablet. The boys are amazed by his swanky attire and intrigued by his computer with its News channel and games. 

The River is fraught will religious motifs from the Bible amongst them a wooden cross in the shaped scarecrow, and this all presages doom for the boys’ rural sanctuary. This is a the film whose spare credentials and minimalism belie its rich thematic content that make it an incisive and satisfying look at progress and loss of innocence. MT


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