Wednesday, August 26, 2009

88. Russian director Khuat Akhmetov’s “Chelovek-veter” (Wind Man) (2007): Marquez in Kazakhstan

Many cinematic memories flashed in my mind as this Russian film, set in Asia, began unspooling. “Wind man” was the nick name of Akira Kurosawa, the great film maestro from Japan. Kurosawa was called the wind man, ever since he made his debut film Sugata Sanshiro/Judo story (1943). It had a powerful end, cinematically capturing the role of the wind as much as the human actions. And one of my favorite movies of this Japanese Wind Man is not a Japanese film but a Russian Oscar winning film called Dersu Uzala (1975), also set in Asian parts of Russia.

Set in the glorious natural expanses of rural Kazakhstan, Khuat Akhmetov’s Wind Man is an obscure Russian film that offers great value both in style and substance. Although I did not spot any reference in the movie’s credits to Nobel Prize winning Colombian author Gabriel Garcia Marquez, the story is evidently adapted from his popular short story called A very old man with enormous wings. Those who have not read Marquez' story would be enthralled by the magic realism that the story/movie offers. Even those who have read the story, would find the Russian film enthralling and try to re-read the Marquez tale (the translation is available free on the Internet) because the film and story are considerably similar at the start and yet so very different towards the end. That is the likely logic for Akhmetov to avoid mentioning Marquez by name in the credits. For me and many others, such films are important not just as cinema but because viewers are driven by curiosity towards the finest writers of this world. Wind Man will remain a fine example of good cinema encouraging people to rediscover the pleasures of the written word.

Akhmetov and co-scriptwriter Odelsha Agishev metamorphose Marquez’ fictional character of a poor Christian fisherman into a marginal Muslim Kazakh villager. The Kazakh ekes out a living raising horses and chickens. Both the fictional characters have a wife and a sick child. Both are visited on a balmy night by an old man with enormous wings who falls down from the skies. However, Akhmetov’s tale ends in a tragic fashion (Russian novelists and filmmakers seem to be at their best with tragedies) while Marquez offers a more spiritually oriented alternative end (in line with the Roman Catholic upbringing of the Colombian rural folks). Both tales offer the reader/viewer many moral perspectives to reflect upon and even have a hearty laugh.

Akhmetov and Agishev are able to transform the tale into satire in many parts of the film, with an old aircraft serving as a “supermarket” that moves around not of its own power but because it is tugged by a land vehicle. If you view the scene critically, you will chuckle at the fact that the words “supermarket” is written in English, not Russian—when not even one character in the village is likely to speak English. There are obvious barbs at Communist era thinking processes of individuals who try to figure out how an old man with wings could be “socially productive” for the commune. The sycophants and imbeciles, with power thrust on them that such societies are likely to produce, are well fleshed out. Corruption in such societies is naturally captured by the filmmakers. One of the corrupt sycophants ends up as an “angel” in a freak show and there is a fine sequence in the film of the two "angels" evaluating each other's predicament.

The movie’s real strength comes from the original Marquez concept—goodness of the strange angelic creature that is no longer young but finds camaraderie in young children and uncorrupted minds of the adults. We are happy to see old angels when they make the sick children healthy. But how do we react after they outlive their immediate social/moral value? The Russian film provides, intentionally or unintentionally, an alternate ending to the Marquez story that fits like a glove for the Muslim mindset—which even adds an imaginary contrapuntal Satanic character Madar, representing death, that never existed in the Marquez story. Ironically, the local Mullah decrees that the winged man is not an angel because the creatures does not speak Allah’s language—Arabic. (Interestingly, even the priest in Marquez’ story writes to the Pope--through proper hierarchical channels--to figure out whether they should call it an angel!)

The movie will open up considerable insights into typical thoughts of the people of Central Asia today with its population often seeking refuge in religion after surviving corrupt political despots of earlier eras. The film cannot be compared to the power of Dersu Uzala. Yet Wind Man is representative of the wide variety of good cinema that Russia continues to produce decade after decade, even though this is the first regular film made by 60-year-old director who had made one TV film prior to this fine feature debut. Akhmetov's trump card for the viewers of Wind Man is the choice of the actor Igor Yasulovich who does not speak a word in the entire film. He reminds you of the latter day thespian Yuri Jarvet (Kozintsev's Lear and Tarkovsky's Dr Snaut in Solyaris/Solaris) of Russian/Estonian cinema, being able to meld respect and aloofness to the strange character he portrays. The only time he makes an audible stamp in the movie is when, under pain of being poked with a red-hot iron, he screams in pain (an event common to both Akhmetov and Marquez versions of the tale) resulting in an unusual storm that is definitely not of man-made proportions.

The Wind Man is no ordinary tale. It forces the viewer to look as politics, social anomalies, religion and humanism. It does not matter whether the Wind Man is an angel or not. It does not matter whether or not children's lives can be saved by extra-terrestrial angelic forces. What the film seems to ask the viewer is to focus on the relationships and values of individuals and families--not far removed from what Marquez intended. Even Mozambican writer Mia Cuoto walked the same road as Marquez and Akhmetov. And cinema brings them closer to us.

P.S. Another example of magic realism in contemporary cinema is the Portuguese/Mozambican film Sleepwalking Land (2007) built on the novel of Mia Cuoto. That film was reviewed earlier on this blog.


फिलम सिनेमा said...

I saw WIND MAN a few days back. Initially I was reluctant to see but I kept on watching for minutes and then a few more minutes. I ended up watching the whole movie. Found solace. Really..

I was amazed to hear Bollywood songs the characters were listening.

This is a completely different kind of cinema. It has always been a rare cinematic species.

But your post enriched me further.

Thanks indeed.
Gajendra Singh Bhati.

Just Another Film Buff said...

Dersu Uzala, what an affecting film... I think Wind Man was screened on one of the world cinema channels here in India, will have to check out...

Rafique said...

Well, what can i say about this Film except that it is just Mind Blowing. It was about the time to my sleep and I saw this film starting, I watched for few minutes, I wanted to sleep but this movie kept me occupied and minutes passed and i ended up watching the whole movie, What kept me attached to my seat was the Cinematography, the lovely landscape and the very natural acting. I really wanted to see what was behind the veil of Madaar. It was totally a very beautiful Experience to watch this movie, hence I decided to do some research on this Film and found your BLOG. thanks a lot for sharing. You can watch it on NDTV Lumiere, they might play it again.

Shyam S S said...

A great movie indeed... saw it in lumiere today...
certainly a movie that makes you think and review own thoughts long after the movie has ended !

Unknown said...

great movie..through d medium of an old n fragile winged man it beautifully depicts the lifestyle n atrocities of Russian people.. truely mesmerising..takes u to a different world..