The Empty Home (Pustoi Dom)


Kyrgyzstan’s submission for Best Foreign Language Film in the Academy Awards of 2013, THE EMPTY HOME, explores how individual ambition in the modern world has its price.

Engaged to the local bigwig, Sultan (Bolot Tentimyshov), plucky 19-year-old Ascel (Maral Koichukaraeva) yearns for more than the loveless marriage arranged for her by her drunkard father. Pregnant with her lover’s child, she flees her village on her wedding night to seek an abortion in Moscow, and falls in with other migrants in search of a better life. An opportunity to earn money as a surrogate for a childless French woman, (Cecile Plage) triggers a change of heart, but her chance at financial reward is threatened by her husband and her lover Marat (Atai Omurbekov) who are both determined to find her before she gives birth.

The film bears a strong feminist slant that avoids easy judgments of its heroine…

Reuniting with writer Ekaterina Tirdatova (WEDDING CHEST) for his second feature, director Nurbek Egen moves into more ambitious territory with a sobering odyssey that stretches from post-Soviet central Asia to France via Russia. Much like THE LIGHT THIEF – Kyrgyzstan’s 2010 Academy Awards submission – the clash between modern values and tradition is played out in THE EMPTY HOME, but on a globalised scale.

The film bears a strong feminist slant that avoids easy judgments of its heroine, whose combination of youthful naiveté and pragmatism helps rather than hinders her quest of merely wanting more from life. A dispiriting tapestry of humanity is on display, with family members and random acquaintances of Ascel portrayed as either self-interested or self-pitying types. Even the underground doctor who takes pity on Ascel and arranges her surrogacy does so as a lucrative sideline.

As a welcome counterpoint, the film is beautifully shot by cinematographer Dmitry Ermakov, who deploys a warm palette to render rural village scenes picturesque. Avoiding the downbeat trappings of much of social-realist cinema, proceedings are leavened by moments of unexpected wry humour, but with a denouement that would not be out of place in some of Ken Loach’s politically-charged work. Ultimately it is the naturalist sensibilities and objective gaze of the Dardenne brothers that are called to mind by Egen’s guiding hand.

THE EMPTY HOME is never less than stimulating, artistically-shot cinema.

As Ekaterina Tirdatova’s script presents unfolding events as a fait accompli, the  frequent ellipsis in the narrative creates moments of confusion, particularly in the Kyrgyzstan set strands involving minor characters. Tellingly, the pantomime-cackling Sultan also comes across as a more fully-formed character than the cypher-like Ascel, who displays scant emotion throughout despite her travails.

Despite its shortcomings, THE EMPTY HOME is never less than stimulating, artistically-shot cinema. With a burgeoning film industry that is punching above its weight, Kyrgyzstan is proving that cinema does not need to accept a default position of lowest common denominator storytelling to offer something of universal interest and pertinence.

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