A Dark, Dark Man
directed by Adilkhan Yerzhanov
starring Daniar Alshinov, Dinara Baktybaeva, Teoman Khos
Astana Film Fund, Short Brothers, Arizona Productions
Like many of you who love cinema, I was devastated upon reading the news that the great director Bertrand Tavernier passed away on March 25th. Throughout that day, I felt genuinely blessed to have had the opportunity to speak with him in person four years ago on the occasion of a small retrospective of his work that took place at the Aero Theater in Santa Monica, California. In many ways, that moment for me was a culmination of a lifelong appreciation of Tavernier’s work which began with a stroke of luck of sorts, as the first film of his that I ever took in was his widely appreciated 1981 feature, Coup de Torchon, which years later, when I eventually devoured the rest of his filmography, was still the film that I always returned to when I thought about the distinct strengths and artistry of Tavernier’s work.
Truth be told, I was barely a teen when I saw that film, and I had not read the Jim Thompson novel that it was based on (Pop. 1280), but there was something that appealed to me in the way that Tavernier approached the ugliness that was inherent to the film’s setting of a corrupt and floundering small town in colonial French West Africa in the days before the Second World War. The film’s antihero, a bumbling sheriff named Lucien (played by the brilliant Philippe Noiret) is a drunken philander who is so marginalized by those around him that he willfully becomes a non-entity in the place where he is supposed to represent some semblance of the law. In the early moments of Coup de Torchon, Tavernier applies an almost Chaplin-esque level of buffoonery to the hapless Lucien, but when our sheriff casually decides to execute and frame all of those in his way to inadvertently right the environment around him, the shift in tone illuminates and further amplifies the evil inherent in the colonialist practices of the era and the uselessness of trying to uphold the policies of a place whose mere existence is a crime.
In Tavernier’s honor, and for the first time in a decade, I rewatched Coup de Torchon on the evening of March 25th, and perhaps due to it still being fresh in my mind, when I watched Kazakh director Adilkhan Yerzhanov’s neo-noir, A Dark, Dark Man, the next evening, I felt an effective, and perhaps an unintentional, nod to Tavernier’s masterful film.
Yerzhanov’s feature is set in present day Kazakhstan in a region that is as far off the world’s radar as the 1930s West African village in Coup de Torchon. And similar to the opening of Tavernier’s film, at the start of A Dark, Dark Man, we observe the silent interactions of a group of people in an expansive space where the neglected natural setting has left little to consume for personal survival. At the center of this interaction in this opening scene of A Dark, Dark Man is Pekuar (Teoman Khos), a harmless-looking man with a cognitive disability, who is joyfully playing an elementary school game in a depleted cornfield with his girlfriend, Adema (Adema Yerzhanov), and a young boy. We then cut away to a law enforcement official in a barn examining a very grim crime scene involving a small dead child under a bloody blanket. As the officer emerges from the barn, he collects Pekuar and bribes him with chocolate bars to masturbate into a cup, the contents of which are then planted as evidence onto the dead body by the officer. As this bleak moment unfolds and leads to Pekuar thoughtlessly agreeing to take the fall for a crime he didn’t commit, we see the other officers on the scene engage in an absurd and infantile game of pantomime that seems pulled out of an Aki Kaurismäki comedy, but placed against the vile framing that has just occurred, it only serves to amplify a feeling that we are in a place where normal societal rules have been completely abandoned.
It is here where we meet the film’s antihero, a young policeman named Bezkat (Daniar Alshinov), who stoically rides into this tableau in his nondescript black sedan, complete with a Tangerine Dream-like score blaring on his radio and a cowboy hat on his head. Cinematically, Bezkat is being set up as a might of right, but that possibly heroic role ends quickly when Bezkat is commanded by our previously pantomiming officers to collect the planted evidence found on the dead child’s body to seal Pekuar’s fate. As our hapless officer does his duty and chronicles what he discovers on the lifeless body in the barn, he casually gobbles down a bowl of ramen. Clearly, Bezkat has had to fulfill this role on more than a few occasions, and when he returns to the station with his suspect, our young detective is charged with another task that also seems too familiar to him—the task of murdering Pekuar to close the case, which Bezkat also agrees to do without complaint.
With no real agency or desire to resist, Bezkat sets off to keep this endless cycle of horror in motion, but before he can do so, a journalist from the city named Ariana (Dinara Baktybaeva) has arrived in town to follow Bezkat to ensure that an actual investigation of this child’s murder will be done properly. Ariana’s concerns about a miscarriage of justice have brought her to this village where a recent spay of murders of several orphaned children have led to a different bodycount of captured suspects who have all been mysteriously found dead from suicide while in police custody. And so, with the officers who rank above Bezkat unable to do little more than squawk about Ariana’s presence because of some unknown outside power that has sent her there, she is off to bird-dog Bezkat, who must now also take Pekuar and Adema with him as he goes through the facade of finding the real killers.
As with Lucien in Coup de Torchon, Bezkat in A Dark, Dark Man is able to commit his crimes without any real opposition, which sets up both men who serve as law enforcement officials to become pure representations of the failures of their respective governments to monitor their actions—Lucien in a far flung West African French colony on the brink of war, and Bezkat in the last of the Soviet Republics to declare independence after the dissolution of the Soviet Union.
Where A Dark, Dark Man differentiates itself from Tavernier’s film is primarily seen through the impact of Ariana on Bezkat. True to its pre-World War II era, the idealist schoolteacher Anne in Coup de Torchon, a character whose arrival should inspire in Lucien a sense of order and fairness, instead becomes another traditionally virtuous entity who is usurped by the dysfunctional colonialist social order. On the other hand, Ariana, a big city journalist in contemporary Kazakhstan who must stand tall against corrupt local government officials, crooked cops, and gangsters, manages to exact some influence on our antihero through her decency and commitment to the truth despite the constant threat of violence against her. As Anne in her day was limited to just the chalk and a blackboard in her schoolhouse to communicate with those around her, does Ariana’s strength then emanate from the possession of modern devices that can eliminate the geographic isolation of this small Kazakh village, or is it Ariana’s keen understanding of her native country that provides the necessary connection to Bezkat to affect him? This mystery behind Ariana’s ability to persuade then becomes a key reason as to why A Dark, Dark Man excels as a modern noir.
Though there are no direct references to Coup de Torchon in Adilkhan Yerzhanov’s impressive feature, our director, with help from Galymzhan Moldanazar’s score and Aydar Sharipov’s cinematography, instead alludes to a myriad of noirs such as Felix Feist’s The Man Who Cheated Himself, Michael Mann’s Thief, and Takeshi Kitano’s Fireworks to misdirect our belief in what the outcome of the film will be. From the very beginning of A Dark, Dark Man, we have an understanding of who the evildoers are and how desperate they can be, but we still attentively watch to see if anything will be done to distance this community from a corrupt status quo and move it towards a place where it can afford to protect its most vulnerable citizens.