To watch Adilkhan Yerzhanov’s The Owners (2014) is to be struck by confusion. A seemingly tragic premise – three siblings (including an epileptic child) inherit their mother’s home only to be thrown out by the aggressive and/or indifferent locals – is interspersed with frivolous singing and dancing. The incongruity of pink vest wearing musical thugs combined with imminent death, conveyed with deadpan delivery will either wear thin quickly or emerge as refreshingly entertaining, depending on your taste. Linking closely with his last feature, 2013’s Constructors, Yerzhanov examines an underdog tale through the experience of John (Aidyn Sakhaman), Yerbol (Yerbolat Yerzhan) and Aliya (Aliya Zainalova).
The trio arrive at their new home and are immediately hassled by the imposing Zhuba (Bauyrzhan Kaptagai) and his ragtag gang of menacing cronies, who claim to have been living at the property for the past ten years. Complaining to the police chief only leads from one beating to another at the hands of Zhuba when John and Yerbol discover that the two are also brothers, and what follows is an escalation of corruption and violence presented as both tragedy and comedy. Key to this tonal balancing act is the film’s striking aesthetic seriousness, as director of photography Yerkinbek Ptyraliyev employs a semi-artificial approach to lighting. In one striking example, a man to whom John owes money, confronts Yerbol under the glow of a street light against the backdrop of a rolling hillside.
At the same time, the palette of washed out ochre, greys and blues presents a startling melancholic authenticity that makes The Owners inherently cinematic. Much of the action is also performed wordlessly, whilst musical numbers abound, either within the context of a scene, such as a birthday party, or as a seemingly innocuous accompaniment to each miserable turn in the plot. As performed by Zhuba’s gang, they serve the function of a chorus line, made up of two pink fairies (one wonders how benign a reference they are), a suit-wearing pianist, and a strong man – all mute and limited emotionally to expressions either happy or sad. The overall effect of The Owners is in the end both poignant and ridiculous, in the sense that we witness an entire village fail Yerbol’s family – which proves deeply moving down to his last effort for redemption – and through their song and dance, the film makes a sincere comment on the futility of bureaucracy.
The 68th Edinburgh Film Festival takes place from 18-29 June 2014. For more of our EIFF coverage, follow this link.