Adilkhan Yerzhanov is a busy man. Since his debut feature Rieltor in 2011, the Kazakh filmmaker has stacked up a further 11 films, with the latest, Assault, premiering at International Film Festival Rotterdam this year. The movie is a taut and confident piece of work, a visually-expansive thriller with a simple, stripped-back set up. Terrorists seize the school of Karatas village, and the winter snow means that backup will take two days to arrive, so the townspeople attempt to take back control on their own. Tensions are exacerbated when its revealed that one schoolteacher has lied about evacuating his class, leaving the students inside to fend for themselves. That he’s in the middle of a messy divorce, with his son in the class, only makes things worse.
It’s a simple pitch, albeit one with the potential to be enacted in bad taste (the memories of the 2004 Beslan school siege and the 2021 Kazan school shooting are still sore in neighboring Russia). But Assault avoids glibness by eschewing focus on the terrorists, and instead following the townspeople. For Yerzhanov, whom I spoke with via Zoom through an interpreter, the key was the existential element of the plot: “What happens to people when all of a sudden strangers wearing masks arrive and it’s up to you to resolve the situation? It’s a very interesting situation with some poetry to be found there in the surrealism of the situation.”
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It’s the visual confidence that marks out Yerzhanov’s filmmaking, with a gorgeous, classical formalism to his work (the director lists Howard Hawks, John Huston, Fred Zinnemann and John Carpenter as influences). Yerzhanov’s visual structure in Assault is succinct and focused, as he clearly takes pleasure in showing audiences the making of a plan and its attendant uncertainties. The band of locals are no battle-hardened warriors, but rather a cross-section of failed brands of masculinity: the boastful PE teacher who turns out to be a soft touch; the drunk old man who claims to have fought in Afghanistan during the Soviet Invasion; the central protagonist, whose initial fear and meekness compounds a small error of judgement into a potentially deadly mistake.
But where Yerzhanov’s Hollywood inspirations are so often concerned with the doing of acts, and their direct causes and effects, he also takes inspiration from French filmmakers, and their often more explicitly existential ethos. He cops to transplanting a scene from Jean-Pierre Melville’s Bob le Flambeur (1956), where criminal groups map out their plans in dirt and snow while practicing run-throughs.
That greater existential, and even nihilistic, train of thought is apparent in Yerzhanov’s decision to make the Assault terrorists entirely faceless enemies. They remain masked throughout, they speak no lines and they have only a few minutes of screentime. They walk straight into the school, unnoticed by everybody. They emerge not as outsider enemies, but rather as something within, some dark malice rooting around in the collective soul. It’s “much scarier,” Kerzhanov says, “when you have an evil that doesn’t have any meaning, rationality or a specific goal. It’s scarier because it’s harder to beat; it can happen anywhere, and it could occur from nowhere… it moves the emphasis towards the heroes of the film, the parents, the teachers, the children, instead of having to explain the political justifications of the attackers.”
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The village of Karatas — a mythical Kazakh everyvillage in which Yerzhanov sets many of his films — is not seen in full at any point in Assault, beyond the isolated school, the police outpost and a few other scattered buildings, and it exists more as state of mind, of isolation and of a sense of perpetual struggle against the forces of nature. There’s a real sense of scale to the wide shots, setting characters against the vast emptiness of the space around, where the horizon blurs into the sky. Working with cinematographer Aidar Sharipov, Kerzhanov uses group compositions to accentuate the discomfort and awkwardness of everybody’s predicament. Even in the vastness of the Kazakh steppes, the protagonists are still crammed together in a small van for heat. There’s more than a touch of Bong Joon-ho (another filmmaker adept at using genre to talk about greater social ills), specifically in relation to Memories of Murder (2003).
That snowbound and desolate setting is key to Assault’s atmosphere. Where the American Western that Yerzhanov clearly takes inspiration from has often predicated itself on an engine of manifest destiny and the possibility of undiscovered lands, the Kazakh western that Yerzhanov moves towards is one where the land has long since been “civilized” (for want of a better term), but never with much evangelical fervor: the same curious human mistakes keep appearing.
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There are perhaps minor flaws in Assault. The film’s characters are all essentially two-dimensional archetypes, and there are arguably a few too many of them for any one character to rise above their type. Of course, most of Yerzhanov’s influences also use archetypes to start with, but at their best, they use archetypes to find something grander — just as John Wayne in Hawks’ Red River (1948) transcends above his cultural persona and all the contradictory meanings that he represents.
Yerzhanov has not yet found a way to surpass this block just yet. Although many of the details in his characterizations are clearly locally specific, giving added interest to proceedings, none have surpassed themselves. The bumbling village cop is still just a bumbling village cop, the angry ex-wife is still the angry ex-wife. But the elegance and classicism of the visual style in Assault more than makes up for any such deficits. Yerzhanov’s prolific nature means that it’s probably just a matter of time before all the jigsaw pieces fall into place.
Thanks to Olga Visnevskaa for providing interpretation.
Fedor Tot (@redrightman) is a Yugoslav-born, Wales-raised freelance film critic and editor, specialising in the cinema of the ex-Yugoslav region. Beyond that he also has an interest in film history, particularly in the way film as a business affects and decides the function of film as an art.