In one of the first scenes of Darezhan Omirbaev’s Chouga, an aspiring cinematographer named Tléguen meets the beautiful Altynaï after she gets out of class with a modest bouquet of flowers for her birthday. Just as she coldly accepts them, Ablaï, the son of a wealthy businessman arrives to take her to lunch. Tléguen, surprised and hurt, declines his invitation to join them. “It’s a shame,” Ablaï says to Tléguen with something like mock-regret, as he escorts Altynaï to his parked BMW. “We could have talked about real cinema.”
Cinema—its real and ersatz versions—is as much a subject of Chouga as are the tragedies and epiphanies of romantic love. Omirbaev’s film is ostensibly an adaptation of Anna Karenina, an efficient reduction of 800-plus pages of text into less than 90 minutes of film, comprising the basic structure and about a half dozen of the principal characters of Leo Tolstoy’s novel. But in this process of distillation, Omirbaev does more than simply transpose Tolstoy’s work from late 19th-century St. Petersburg to early 21st-century Kazakhstan. Like his forebear, he employs the tragic dalliance between Anna and Vronsky (in this case, Chouga and Ablaï) to look deeply at the shallowness of the upper classes. But he does so, as this early exchange between Tléguen and Ablaï hints, with an interest in modern Kazakhstan’s newly consumerist society and particularly the visual culture on which it feeds.