The next film on my docket of Kazakh movies was actually a joint venture between Estonian, Finnish, Belorussian, Russian and Kazakhstani studios: the 2014 drama Ya ne vernus’ (Я не вернусь, I Won’t Come Back) directed by Ilmar Raag. The film itself is somewhat hard to classify: there are elements in it of both Thelma & Louise and Bridge to Terabithia, odd as that combination may sound. It’s all three of a road movie, a buddy movie and a bildungsroman, and very much so of each – but it somehow goes far deeper than and far beyond all of its genre expectations. It’s rich and emotionally complex, and despite the great vastness of the journey of its characters from northwestern Russia all the way into southeastern Kazakhstan – much of it taking place in and around dense and snowbound Russian forests – it’s a remarkably intimate portrait of a troubled friendship between two very damaged yet beautiful female protagonists.
The film’s main character, Anya (Polina Pushkaruk) seems to be set for success, despite growing up in an orphanage. She distances herself from her friends and from her boyfriend Dima (Sergei Yatsenyuk). She earns a gold medal for her academic performance at the orphanage, but at what should be a proud moment of her life she seems to be far from smiling and on the verge of tears. She leaves the orphanage without saying goodbye to anyone. Several years later, we see Anya a university post-doc, giving lectures on Byron. She’s having an affair with the married professor (Andrei Astrahantsev), who does not and seemingly cannot treat her as an equal. After Dima, now a drug dealer wanted by the police, comes back into her life and inadvertently implicates her in his crimes, she has to flee the police and hide herself in another orphanage. There she meets another girl, a diminutive, bullied fourteen-year-old with a big imagination named Kristina (Viktoriya Lobacheva), who dreams of escaping her orphanage and going back to her babushka in Kazakhstan, evidenced only by a worn folded photo with an address on the back. When the police come looking for her anyway, the two of them set off together for Shamalǵan (now Úshqońyr) in search of Kris’s babushka, whom Anya is not certain even exists.
The film’s production is very polished, very modern – which is what one should expect when production companies from five different countries, two of which are state-run, have their hands in its creation. The preferred palette consists of deep gritty primary colours, generating an intense feeling of realism despite there being a rather “unreal,” almost mythic quality to the story it tells. One can easily see how it might otherwise have become a pastiche of melodramatic films in these genres. But Raag seems to have a peculiar talent for drawing incredible emotional power off of small gestures, small encounters, simple words and phrases. The relationship between the older Anya and the younger Kristina is rendered real and heartfelt by just such interactions between the two.
The early characterization of Anya comes off as a little bit caricatured. Indeed, her rapid ascent from orphanage prodigy to assistant professor with a shining career in academia seems more than a bit implausible, in a Horatio Alger kind of way – though given the way her relationship with the professor plays out, it’s possible that Raag was deliberately subverting this theme. And the equally-sudden turns by which she falls under police suspicion, escapes, and disguises her way into another orphanage seem a bit convenient and contrived. But once Anya meets Kristina, the film seems to find its feet rather easily, and just lets the two characters play off each other. Both of them have a keenly-felt and painful need to be intimate with each other, yet each of them has difficulty articulating that need to the other. As a result, they end up fighting with each other more often than not.
Kristina’s attachment to Anya at the beginning of their journey is healthy, straightforward, sincere and believable. Anya provides Kristina with an elder-sororal figure, even something like a foster mother; and even if Anya fulfills that rôle reluctantly for much of the film, nonetheless Kristina finds what she’s looking for in Anya – as, for instance, when she saves Kris from being casually kidnapped by an older man at a roadside filling station, who claims to have a brother in Kazakhstan.
But the younger girl’s impact on Anya seems a little harder to pin down. On the one hand, Anya is deeply drawn to something in Kris’s mythopœic sense of life, her clear flights of imagination – even if she herself is too jaded at first to see in them anything other than the fictional delusions of a frightened and self-defensive early teen. When Kris speaks of her ‘wings’, which were given her by God but taken from her by her teachers, Anya clearly comprehends her as speaking to a deeper truth – one she can relate to. On the other hand, for most of the film Anya is never quite able to extricate herself from the lopsided relationship she has with the married professor. Anya’s inner conflict sometimes leads her to be unjustifiably cruel toward Kris. For example, when Andrei calls Anya back on her cellphone and asks her to come back to him, Anya deliberately takes Kris into a graveyard at night – frightening her out of her wits – and tries to abandon her there.
But her growing attachment to Kris nonetheless gives her something of a salvific arc. All the way through the film, the faded-pencilled Shamalǵan address on the back of Kris’s photo which serves as their destination seems to be something of a mirage, a Lake Kitëzh. In Kris’s retelling, babushka’s house in Kazakhstan takes on a kind of otherworldly significance. And yet Raag manages to give us, his audience, the sense that this mirage is the only thing capable of saving Anya from the tenuous and unhappy balancing-act that was her previous adult life; and this is the case even and particularly when the story takes a heartbreaking twist. Though this is not a particularly ‘religious’ movie, Ya ne vernus’ notably turns on a leap of faith.
Despite the breadth and vastness of the film’s sets and scenery, Ya ne vernus’ fixates strongly on the relationship between the two girls. This isn’t a bad thing in the slightest, but sometimes it happens to the exclusion of other intriguing possibilities. Though one of the people they met on the road clearly had evil designs on Kris, for the rest of the film the minor characters appear in strongly supportive rôles. And despite us seeing things largely through Anya’s eyes, one sometimes wishes to see and learn more of them: the drivers who pick them up, the Kazakh train passengers who nurse Anya back to health when she falls ill, or the magazin owner who catches Anya stealing sweets for Kris from her store – but who nonetheless refuses her money and gives her the sweets for free. Ya ne vernus’ is never an explicitly-feminist film, but the most touching moments portrayed herein are always those of camaraderie and support by an older woman for a younger one.
Though some of the movie’s plot twists and premises, particularly early on, can be a bit bewildering, the sisterly relationship between the two main characters that is the heart and soul of this movie is utterly earnest, and that makes this a really tough movie to dislike. There are a couple of elements to the story (like the drug bust and the occasional foul language) that might keep me from recommending it to too-young audiences, but Ya ne vernus’ really is a family film at heart: one that takes an understated but no less deep dive, through this bittersweet and intimate character sketch, into what constitutes love and faith and home. Speaking strictly for myself, this is probably one of my favorite Kazakh films to have watched so far.
This is also available on Matthew Cooper’s blog.