Venice 2020 review: Yellow Cat (Adilkhan Yerzhanov)

Somewhere halfway between absurdist comedy and slapstick road movie is Yellow Cat, Kazakh director Adilkhan Yerzhanov’s cinema-quoting, Francophile ninth feature. A film about chasing your dreams, however improbable it may seem to turn them into reality on the steppes of Kazakhstan, where crime and corruption are always lurking around the proverbial corner (the film’s widescreen shots of the windswept landscape reveal no actual ones).

Ex-con Kermek (Azamat Nigmanov) walks into the film decked out in aloha shirt and fedora, a surprising sight in the barren, monotone countryside of rural Kazakhstan. Just released from jail, he is looking for a job. But local police officer Bozoy (who later turns out to be Kermek’s older brother) has other plans for him. He enlists Kermek in his posse of smalltime thugs, something the gentle-natured young man is completely unsuited for. He is a lover of cinema with a special place in his heart for Alain Delon and Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Samouraï (hence the fedora), and his dream is to open a cinema on a plot of land his uncle owns in the mountains. After a conflict over some money stolen from a local mobster, Kermek takes the money and sets off with manic pixie dream prostitute Eva (Kamila Nugmanova) to make his dream come true. Can he stay out of the grasp of the mobster and his cronies though?

Yellow Cat‘s tone is predominantly light, even in moments where somebody is gruesomely killed, as Yerzhanov somehow manages to give even that a slightly comedic ring. So when the film does do away with the whimsical in its last few grim moments the change of pace is jarring. But looking beneath the surface a bit shows that Yellow Cat does deal with serious issues like corruption and prostitution, and crime in general in these remote areas. These issues may be background, but that doesn’t mean Kermek and Eva’s lives aren’t affected by them. In general though that seriousness is not very congruent with (brilliant) sight gags involving a trampoline, a Kazakh interpretation of Robert de Niro in Taxi Driver, or a sweet version of Gene Kelly’s famous Singin’ in the Rain performance (the irony of this being done in the middle of an arid Kazakh steppe is notable). Because of the quirk, the more serious themes get lost in the shuffle.

The quirk is what gives Yellow Cat an easy charm though. When Kermek and Eva put a table up against a wall with painted wine glasses and a bottle to pretend they are in a Parisian café, it is hard not to smile. Combine that with Nigmanov and Nugmanova’s disarming performances and it is hard not to like the film. In particular the latter has a presence that requires little dialogue. Yet one can’t shake the feeling that this isn’t enough, that the film is too slight for the topics it seems to want to raise. Yellow Cat is certainly an enjoyable divertissement, and some of its deadpan and absurdist humor is tickling, but in the end very little remains but its peculiar cutesiness and charm.