The Adopted Son (1998)

Kyrgyzstan

3.5*
Director:
Aktan Abdykalykov
Screenwriters:
Aktan Abdykalykov
Avtandil Adikulov
Marat Sarulu
Director of Photography:
Khassan Kydyraliev

Running time: 77 minutes

Original title: Бешкемпир
Transliterated title: Beshkempir

The films of the countries that used to form a part of the Soviet Union are not very well-known, primarily because there are so few of them and the nascent film industries in those countries in general have neither the money nor the experience to make films that can be marketed to a larger audience outside the country. From time to time, filmmakers from elsewhere come to take advantage of these foreign lands and the vistas that viewers around the world might never have seen on film before, and thereby produce small but interesting films, for example the French production Moi Ivan, Toi Abraham, made in 1993 in Belarus; Tengri, made in Kazakhstan by a French production team that used Kyrgyz actors; or notable films out of Tajikistan thanks to director Bakhtyar Khudojnazarov in the 1990s, before he started making films in Russia.

Kyrgyz director Aktan Abdykalykov, who also goes by the name of Aktan Arym Kubat, is a Kyrgyzstan native who worked as a production designer on some of the films made by the former Soviet Union’s local Kirgizfilm, the films almost always — with a few rare exceptions, mostly in the 1980s — in Russian. The country’s independence at the end of 1991 also heralded the coming of the Kyrgyz-language film industry. The films of Abdykalykov (and more recently, of Ernest Abdyjaparov and the young Nurbek Egen, as well) have been some of the lone cinematic voices in post-Soviet Kyrgyzstan.

Like all the other films made in the country since the fall of the Iron Curtain, The Adopted Son is set in rural Kyrgyzstan. The film stars the director’s son, Mirlan, in the role of the young teenage boy Beshkempir, whose life is about to “go berserk”, as his grandmother puts is. But this is not his grandmother: The opening scene, 12 years earlier, shown to us in warm colors, already established that he was adopted at birth, and this fact is about to turn his life upside down.

Cut to the present in black and white, when Beshkempir’s hair is cut and the sound of clippers is suddenly replaced by garden scissors cutting a small branch from a tree. Things obviously do not look good for the boy’s future, and the rest of the film is in black and white, with the exception of some slightly more optimistic shots (rather than scenes) briefly presented to us in colour, almost all of them unfortunately disconnected from the storyline, bringing atmosphere rather than substance.

The other children play with him and he is not socially isolated, but at this age children have started to show their true colours, and we can see them whispering in each other’s ears, clearly spreading a story about him: the story about his origins that, soon enough, he will discover for himself.

The other strong thread in the film has to do with the sexual coming-of-age of the boys, and as Beshkempir sees another boy, who already has a job as a projectionist at the open-air cinema where they screen Indian musicals from the 1960s, picking up a girl on his bicycle, and he wants to eventually do the same with the girl he has his eye on, Aynura.

But in the meantime, he is frustrated, as first a woman the boys make out of dirt, for them to have their way with, is trampled by a heard of bulls, and then when he lies in bed one morning and his hand slips down to his grown, a bird flies into the room (a hoopoe, whose sound permeates the soundtrack of the film).

Beshkempir tries very hard to be poetic, and while there are numerous important incidents that should energise the narrative, they are all presented as fragments with little or no transition between them, and furthermore the addition of colour, often completely unexpectedly, draws more attention to itself than is required for this particular film. So does the racking of focus from Beshkempir and his father, a bitter man whom we don’t get to know or understand, to water dropping from a makeshift tap in the foreground during an altercation.

The dialogue is post-synchronised, but even so, one of the central scenes, in which Beshkempir is most seriously stabbed in the back by one of his best friends, features a boy whose words are, even in Kyrgyz, delivered very poorly, which makes our empathy with Beshkempir and our interest in the events more difficult.

While the film shows some technical creativity, the narrative is more opaque than necessary, as it leaves many questions unanswered and sometime even unasked, though the viewer needs more information to know who these people are (most of the characters are never introduced by name) and why they are behaving the way they do. However, despite its shortcomings, Beshkempir is a more-than-adequate contribution to world cinema.