Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina honed to a deadpan highlight reel, Darezhan Omirbayev’s Chouga turns the epic melodrama of cross-country fidelity and infidelity into a languorous, essentialist series of almost-mysterious, always-fated romantic movements. The psychology so beloved by the novel is minimized down to looks in the film, major events and feelings like courtship and inner unrest rendered as minimally as a terse conversation on a couch and a brief look down, then away. Chouga could almost be Bressonian in its measured reserve and deliberate essentialism of actor-action to tell a story. But that would be if Omirbayev’s mise-en-scène wasn’t strictly realist, or if his stoic actors failed to express a subtle but profound humanism inside the small comedies and melancholies of the director’s restrained, deadpan direction. These small elements tremble in the humble film, people almost as ciphers, objects almost as symbolic, but each and all given a tiny dose of a flame, a little bit of restrained life by the director.
What remains of Tolstoy’s story—or perhaps we should say, what Omirbayev expresses through Tolstoy’s story—is a kind of fateful inertia in love and fidelity. Whether ruled by chance or the stars, human agency in affairs romantic and moral has been rendered moot. Human sensibility—that of the characters—is all one can draw from inside the film’s closed system of who is going to end up with whom. Patience, simplicity, and a hobby for the arts (poetry and film) give the Levin character in the film no natural advantage nor do they impact in his courtship of young student Altynai (Aniour Sapargali), just like Vronsky’s stand-in, Ablai (Aidos Sagatov), has a casual, almost indifferent passion which is always with him, regardless of whether it led Chouga (Ainour Tourganbaeva)—the film’s Anna—to him or eventually away from him. Indeed, Omirbayev’s interpretation makes the eponymous character, as the film’s center, the most mysterious of all. Ablai’s romantic magnetism, like much of the action and time in the film, is portrayed elliptically; Chouga’s alienation from her home by a remarkable sparseness; and the final, tragic cooling of their relationship almost banally, inevitable and natural. Chouga’s appeal and her behavior—both at once boldly apparent but fundamentally inexplicable—becomes the heart of the film, where human movements in desire, morality, and fidelity through time are quietly expressive but ultimately unexplainable things. Our romances are moving, yes, but knowable or understandable, their origins, their fidelities, and their ultimate fates most certainly are not.