If you’ve already seen enough films from Kyrgyzstan this year to tide you over, well, hang on just a bit longer. If you’re interested in international cinema and, like this American critic, you have only a vague awareness of this small Central Asian republic as a nation, much less as a nation with a film industry, then the 2010 Kyrgyz drama The Light Thief should pique your curiosity out of sheer novelty, at the very least. Released on DVD last month by the amazing Global Film Initiative, Aktan Arym Kubat’s film is a charming and distinctive little gem that’s surprisingly engaging and accessible to Western audiences who might not necessarily know their Kyrgyzstan from their Kazakhstan.
The Light Thief of the title is a crafty electrician who answers to Mr. Light, played brilliantly by Kubat, who also serves as writer and director here. Mr. Light is the resident electrician of a small Kyrgyz town stagnated by poverty and lack of opportunity, a warm and charitable soul who has no qualms about rigging electric meters for residents who can’t afford to pay the power company for their juice. In his spare time he tinkers with a homemade windmill in his backyard, and dreams of building more in a nearby valley — enough to provide cheap electricity to the whole town.
When we first meet him he is doing just what the title describes — jovially tampering with the electric meter of an elderly neighbor to provide him with free electricity. The scene has almost no dialogue other than Kubat muttering to himself, but his performance is utterly winning as he captures the irrepressible delight that all clever tinkerers take in using their ingenuity to circumvent some stubborn obstacle. He has the open, honest face of a silent comedian, a sort of Kyrgyz Buster Keaton, and his downcast look when chastened as well as his warm laughter are both equally affecting. Just by observing the way he speaks and moves for a few moments, we can see that Mr. Light is possessed by a peculiar combination of humility and confidence, of naiveté and pride. Kubat’s easy and genial embodiment of Mr. Light is the kind of deceptively simple performance where a small gesture or brief glance can speak volumes, and it’s by far the most compelling aspect of the movie, especially during parts when its thin narrative seems to drift away.
Unfortunately, this thin narrative is the movie’s biggest weakness. It’s essentially a simple parable, perhaps to a fault. Although the rural town is a pristine slice of heaven nestled in a green valley amongst majestic mountains, its way of life is in danger of dying, as more and more residents leave seeking jobs and opportunity in urban areas. A slick, corrupt businessman from the big city named Bekzat moves in (we know he’s not to be trusted due to his dark suit, sunglasses, and goatee) and tries to scheme his way onto the local council and install his crony as the mayor. His plans to buy the valley and develop it set up a familiar conflict between tradition and modernity. When innocent and trusting Mr. Light begins working with Bekzat, he soon finds himself caught up in an increasingly unsettling web of corruption and dishonesty.
It’s a time-tested and interesting enough basis for a movie, but aside from setting up the initial conflict in the first half, little happens to advance the plot in the second, and at times the film’s gentle pacing seems to forget about it entirely. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, since the individual vignettes that the film is constructed from are mostly engaging in and of themselves, and Kubat is a pleasure to watch as Mr. Light. But by the end of the film some might be left thinking about missed opportunities or elements that could have been fleshed out to make a far more interesting picture. Tantalizing hints of ambiguity appear at regular intervals but aren’t pursued, which sometimes make The Light Thief feel like the echo of a more morally complex film.
For example, in one key scene Bekzet and the mayor argue about Bekzet’s plans to develop the valley, with the mayor accusing him of being greedy and crass and Bekzet accusing him of being stubborn and old fashioned for wanting to eschew economic opportunities in order to keep the town unspoiled by modern progress. But this comes after an earlier scene where the mayor confesses to Mr. Light that he too secretly wishes to leave his dying town and move to the city like so many of his fellow townsfolk have done.
As well, Bekzet is painted as something of a sympathetic villain at times. Although he is obviously motivated by the vast profits that could be reaped from the valley’s development (and he clearly has an elastic relationship with the truth), at the same time he is the only character to lend an interested ear to Mr. Light’s windmill idea. And although Mr. Light seems to appreciate that Bekzet’s plans would more than likely spell the end of a way of life for the town’s current residents, he also seems aware that things might not be able to remain as they are for much longer. These are all suggestions of richer characters and moral ambiguities that, with a bolder exploration, The Light Thief could have benefitted from.
Aside from the simple plot and weak ending (which feels tacked on and mismatched in tone from the rest of the film), The Light Thief is still a warm, humanistic slice of life from a region little-observed or thought-about in the West. Aesthetically, it’s a treasure — almost every shot captured by Kubat’s camera is visually captivating, from the stunning panoramic mountain vistas to the cluttered homes of the colorful townsfolk (most of them nonprofessional actors, but all of them delivering capable performances). And Kubat’s marvelous turn as Mr. Light more than makes up for any narrative deficiencies the film might have.
It’s enough to simply sit back and watch him scurrying around the gorgeous Central Asian landscape living his life and dreaming his dreams. The film Kubat has built around him may be a slight, minor work, but it’s worth experiencing, nonetheless.
The extras are limited to a discussion guide for the film, available as a PDF file to be viewed on a computer. The guide mainly consists of a few discussion questions about the film’s themes that might be of value to educators, and a long encyclopedia-style article about Kyrgyzstan. But unless you find yourself absolutely dying for more information about Kyrgyz traditional music, or the polo-like horseback sport a few characters are briefly glimpsed playing in one scene, it adds little to the viewing experience of the film. Some interviews or more information about the film itself would have been far more illuminating.