The Plague at Karatas Village

he Plague at Karatas Village
The Plague at Karatas Village

Format: Cinema

Seen at Rotterdam 2016

Director: Adilkhan Yerzhanov

Writer: Adilkhan Yerzhanov

Cast: Aibek Kudabayev, Nurbek Mukushev, Tolganay Talgat

Original title: Chuma v aule Karatas

Kazakhstan, Russia 2016

80 mins

A unique nightmarish allegorical tale of corruption in Kazakhstan.

There have been a few Kazakhstan breakthrough films: Tulpan, The Gift to Stalin, Mongol, Kelin, Harmony Lessons and Adilkhan Yerzhanov’s downbeat 2014 film The Owners to name a few. The latter director/writer had the international premiere of his new film, The Plague at Karatas Village, at the Rotterdam festival, and in common with The Owners, this film deals – though more obliquely – with his deep disturbance at the lawlessness and corruption at every level of Kazakhstan society.

In this story, a well-intentioned young man with a mission to clean up the village arrives in Karatas to serve as the new mayor. In seeing a number of villagers in a state of illness, he recognises the symptoms as plague-related. The villagers, as well as the authorities, all insist that they have only the flu, and it becomes evident that the money that has been sent from central government to combat the disease has been pocketed by corrupt officials who have allowed the plague to rage unabated. As the new mayor inevitably and violently gets dragged down into this pit of corruption, with its attendant abuses of power and the resultant repression, and soon thereafter madness, he slowly but surely finds himself descending into a living hell.

That is the story, but the plot unfolds as a wildly surreal, weirdly mythological, elliptical aural and visual journey that is presented as a slow-burning fable where bizarre characters break into Saint Vitus-like dancing, fits and shakes, and make utterances and sounds like possessed ones speaking in tongues. The sets are darkly atmospheric with a subdued lighting and colour palette, while the performances range from zombie-like to overly theatrical, which gives the whole cinematic composition its uncanny feel. As it slips into a kind of expressionist horror scenario reflective of, according to its author, the rotten state of present-day Kazakhstan, the viewing of this film leaves one with the mixed sense of implausibility and surreal bewitchment. An opaque parable, and described by the jury who awarded it the Best Asian Film Award thus: ‘A story of corruption, the abuse of power and inertia are given an absurdist, Brechtian treatment. The director creates a totally unique universe, somewhere between Ionesco, Kafka and David Lynch.’

The Plague at Karatas Village is a curious fable that is not always successful at arousing – much less satisfying – the uncanny responses it hopes to stir in its intended audience, but is nonetheless the sort of committed filmmaking that needs making and rewards viewing.

James B. Evans

This review is part of our Rotterdam 2016 coverage.