Thursday, 4 August 2011

Bright sparks: "The Light Thief"

Well, it's not every day UK audiences get to experience the best Kyrgyz cinema has to offer. The Light Thief returns us to territory previously explored in Ben Hopkins' 37 Uses for a Dead Sheep - the regional custom of dead goat polo makes an unlikely screen comeback - but pushes on in a more overtly fictional mode, with the story of a mercurial engineer (sometimes sprightly, but prone to wallowing, drunken bouts of melancholy) accused of supplying the residents of his small village with hooky electricity. From the way the protagonist bemoans his inability to provide his wife with a son (and thus the kind of heir the country's rulers are passing their own legacies on to), it's clear the film has issues of power and potency on its mind; indeed, the electrician's travails prove to be but the filament wrapped around a pulsing core of indignant editorial concerning the way the nation's resources are being divided up among an elite few.

At a town hall meeting we see early on, one of the more poetically minded contributors begins a speech with the words "we live in a valley between mountains, through which passes the wind", and if ever a film could be read as an expression of national character, The Light Thief would be it: forever changeable in its outlook, it's evidently the work of a cinema (that as Hopkins illustrated) is still working out the best way to gather up and tell its stories. There's a distinct choppiness about the way the hero goes from being the subject of a police inquiry to hooking up the Government headquarters, and from there to his eventual fate as a plaything for the rich. We sense the focus drifting from one sequence to the next, which - though a clear sign of a filmmaker with much to say - does occasionally leave the viewer having to chase meanings and referents.

Still, the bold, widescreen imagery certainly gets in a lot of varied local colour: the, ahem, climax is a state-sponsored sex show involving a live camel, a frisky metaphor for the bondage many of the area's residents find themselves born into. (Someone, inevitably, gets the hump.) Hard to argue with co-writer/director Aktan Arym Kubat's smashing lead performance, too: modest and - yes - grounded, holding together his paperchase of a script with the most delightful, happy-making face seen on screen for several months. It remains interesting rather than essential, and insistently niche, but The Light Thief remains everything good, conscientious summer counterprogramming ought to be: unusual, surprising, and interested in more than noisy robots or aliens - a bracing draught of fresh air through cinemas currently choked up with hotdog and popcorn farts.

The Light Thief is on selected release.

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