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  • Writer's picturePerrin Faerch

Review: Yellow Cat (2021)

Let’s face it, it’s hard not to talk about Kazakhstan without bringing up the giant elephant in the room as it fumbles and breaks everything in its path: Borat. As funny and as smartly realized the character is in terms of putting a mirror up to the bigotry of the world and how it responds uncomfortably to it, it’s left an unfair, negative image on Kazakhstan and its people. If you do a brief google search into what Borat gets right and wrong about Kazakhstan, there are almost no similarities from his anti-Semitic buffoonery to that of the people and nation of Kazakhstan. His nationality, or deciding upon it, essentially boiled down to picking an abstract Eastern European-sounding country most people won't be able to find on the map (hint: it's not in Europe). So it’s a welcome breath of fresh air when a gem like Yellow Cat is unearthed from a relatively unexplored region (at least to westerners), showcasing the forward-thinking, creative talent the region has to offer. This is certainly not Borat's Kazakhstan.

Yellow Cat takes place in the rolling, vast badlands of Kazakhstan as we follow ex-con Kermek (Azamat Nigmanov) and prostitute Eva (Kamila Nugmanova)’s attempt to leave their life of crime behind with the hopes of fulfilling Kermek’s dream of opening a cinema in the mountains.

Director Adilkhan Yerzhanov creates an air of romantic wonder teeming with a sense of genuine child-like playfulness. Kermek and Eva are drawn to the romantic ideal of running away from their miserable existences with the wish-fulfillment one gets in watching their favourite movies – putting themselves in their heroes shoes. Interestingly, Yerzhanov opts for mostly doomed anti-hero stories and protagonists that find themselves influencing the star-crossed lovers of Kermek and Eva the most. With obvious nods to past film’s ill-fated heroes, relationships and stories, Yerzhanov adds them into the constantly evolving recipe of Kermek and Eva's seemingly unreachable dream to truly escape. It adds to the unpredictable danger that secretly lurks beneath the film's colourful, deadpan optimism - keeping us on our toes as we constantly guess where Yerzhanov and his team will eventually take us. German composer Carl Orff's famous piece Gassenhauer serves as the consistent musical motif throughout Yellow Cat. It’s a fitting piece that has been used in many films since, most famously as Terence Malick's Badlands' instantly recognizable theme. Hell, other 'lovers-on-the-run' movies like True Romance have consistently used it as a nod to Badlands, with Yellow Cat adding itself to the list of admirers. And although Yellow Cat plays tribute to many films and their flawed protagonists throughout, Badlands feels the most fitting in terms of both setting (especially the rural backdrop) and story as the increasingly hostile environment around them aims to stop their dreams in their tracks.

Along with the film's obvious love for Badlands as well as Kermek's obsession with Le Samouraï (he can proudly act out any scene from the first half of the film), Yellow Cat makes many references to films and stories that draw some sort of parallel to Kermek's personal journey. Taxi Driver, Bonnie and Clyde, the French New Wave, and even Casino are referenced throughout. The infectious sense of adventure and as mentioned before, child-like curiosity and blind hopefulness, are amplified by the chemistry felt between Kermek and Eva. It’s ironic that these films of the doomed dreams of objectively bad and questionable people serve as the driving force behind a story of such sheer infectious optimism. But this is where Yerzhanov flips the script, making it a clear point that Kermek and Eva aren't like the anti-heroes the film and its characters make reference to. After all, he loves them, and so do we. It'll be different this time. They're two sweet souls who are essentially just big kids, latching on to a dream that very well could happen if they just believed in it hard enough. It’s when the most optimistic of film references in Singin’ in the Rain arrives that has Yerzhanov shifting to a more muted pessimistic tone, suggesting that not everything can be sunshine and rainbows despite our desire to break free from the confines of our past life.

Much like Chloe Zhao’s Nomadland, the cinematographer doubles up as sort of a DOP as well as a production designer/art director, using their open-world rural environment as the set. Yerzhanov and his cinematographer Ptyraliyev place their actors in constantly shifting, rural exteriors as a means to develop the characters and story in the most effective ways possible. He captures the essence of a relatively small story and its characters in the big, expansive world of their surroundings, managing to play with depth of field expertly. This allows for important visual elements in the foreground, middle and background to have a key say in each character's internal and external journeys. This is a hard trick to pull off in a film that mostly has exterior settings with the barest of production design. Yerzhanov's concise direction allows for it to never be overcomplicated, making use of those seemingly empty spaces to full effect. And that is the power of truly strong filmmaking from Yerzhanov - creating visual metaphors using the vast, wide-open set of his surroundings, allowing for the dreams of our heroes to be endless yet almost unattainable in the vast expanse of the Kazakh badlands.

The charm of the plot would be null and void without the right actors to get it over the line. Thankfully, the entire cast has a firm grasp on not only the intentions of Yerzhanov’s script and direction, but also share the same sense of playfulness and comedic timing needed to make it all blend seamlessly together. The deadpan, offbeat performances are met with a fun and hopeful enthusiasm that feels warm and inviting, differentiating itself from being a potential Wes Anderson copycat. It's no surprise that Azamat Nigmanov and Kamila Nugmanova as the runaways of Kermek and Eva are the rightful stars of the show. The chemistry and sheer fun these two have is endlessly contagious, with each vignette-like moment of playtime allowing for them to relish in their characters' emotional, expressive freedom. We often find them playing in the grass, impersonating the grown-ups in their lives, playing tag, etc. And what else do kids do? They dream big. They give us performances that make it impossible for us not to root for them, creating a universally relevant story from the most unlikely of places. Once again, this isn't Borat's Kazakhstan.

Yellow Cat is a dreamer’s paradise – an audacious jab at actually chasing after one’s dreams against the circumstantial forces that look to deny them. It’s a beautiful little gem that is simultaneously joyful and utterly heartbreaking. One of the truly wonderful hidden secrets of 2021 so far.

Where you can watch it: Mubi (worldwide)

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