The Gentle Indifference of the World (Kazakhstan, 2018) [Aperture 2019]

Auteur director Adilkhan Yerzhanov has become a common fixture on the European and Asian festival circuit, making a name for himself as a unique voice in the sometimes-lacking post-soviet cinema of Kazakhstan. His latest feature, The Gentle Indifference of the World, a modern fairy-tale of love, corruption, and loss of innocence, screened at the Un Certain Regard section of the 2018 Cannes to positive reactions. While not without some flaws, The Gentle Indifference is a charming and astonishingly beautiful film, helmed by a director and creative team that clearly know their craft.

When her father dies, Saltanat (Dinara Baktybaeva) is forced to abandon her idyllic life in the village for the big city, where she’s expected to meet her uncle (Yerken Gubashev) who has promised to help pay off the family’s tremendous debt. A young man by the name of Kuandyk (Kuandyk Dyussembaev), clearly in love with Saltanat, decides to follow her to the city and do everything in his power to help her. Though poor and without any skills, Kuandyk is determined to get rich by starting a potato-selling business.

Once in the city, Saltanat finds that her uncle’s help does not come unconditionally. She must become the concubine of a rich businessman who promises, in time, to pay her family’s debt. Saltanat refuses at first, though as the noose of debt tightens around her family, she has no choice but to accept. In the meanwhile, Kuandyk is eager to find work and thus begins working for a potato-vendor as handyman. His ambition and overzealousness, however, lead him in the clutches of some less-than-reputable businessmen who drive him to commit illegal acts. Danger escalates, and despite their personal and moral sacrifices, neither Saltanat nor Kuandyk get what they want. In the end, tragedy becomes inevitable.

The plot is rather straightforward, filled with references that are perhaps too easily recognizable. If anything, the film wears its symbolism on its sleeve. The title comes straight from Albert Camus‘ The Stranger (directly quoted by the protagonists), while the influence of the French absurdist writer/philosopher shows up abundantly throughout the film, particularly the ending. The slow and laconic takes are reminiscent of traditional European art-house directors such as Aki Kaurismaki or Theo Angelopoulos. Mythology and folklore may also count among Yerzhanov’s influences, as the story of Kuandyk and Saltanat strongly resembles that of the Greek myth of Orpheus and Euridice – there’s even a scene where Saltanat slowly descends a long and portentous escalator, much like the descent to hades in the classic Greek tale. Yet, despite this confluence of multiple ideas, The Gentle Indifference of the World never feels derivative or uninspired.  It all coalesces wonderfully under the director’s unique style and stunning visual aesthetic.

It is indeed in visual storytelling that The Gentle Indifference of the World excels. Almost every frame looks like an impressionist painting, composed with the utmost care by the director and the cinematographer (Aydar Sharipov) who make full use of their native Kazakhstani landscapes in the background. It is precisely the meticulous crafting of the shots – stunning and otherworldly – that make some of the “fairy-tale logic” of the film not only passable, but desirable. Even as the protagonists’ lives descend into corruption, the film itself remains immaculate and beautiful. All deadly violence and sex are kept off-screen, with the director choosing to focus on faces rather than action.  It is in the protagonists’ expressive faces that the sadness of their story prevails.

Of course, the beauty of the film can be a double-edged sword due to a perceived artificiality of the shot compositions. It is sometimes distracting when the filmmaker’s hand is so obvious on the screen, though in the case of The Gentle Indifference of the World, it never crosses the line into irritation. In a cinematic world saturated with fast-paced action, it is refreshing to see a director who not only appreciates the most fundamental elements of filmmaking but makes the audience appreciate them, too. 

The Gentle Indifference of the World is showing as part of the Aperture: Asia & Pacific Film Festival & UK Tour 2019.

John Atom