Cannes Review: The Owners

Death and dancing collide in The Owners; a bleak, surreal and deeply strange Kazakhstani offering centring on a trio of siblings struggling to keep their house from being stolen by nasty locals.

Oldest sibling John, teenage brother Erbol and their sickly but sweet sister Aliya inherit a house in a remote village after their mother dies and they are forced to leave the city. Unfortunately for the three young characters, the house they have been left with has been occupied by the violent alcoholic brother of the local head of the police and he will not give up the house without a fight. After losing their mother and hitching out to the rural cottage with their measly belongings, things then go from bad to worse for the trio as the police and the locals all insist they cannot remain in the home. They are attacked, abused and struggle to survive and all the while little Aliya sees entertainment in everything even through her illness.

This is the third feature from writer-director Adilkhan Yerzhanov and is an understated, poetic and occasionally touching tale of corruption and despair. The small village that the central trio find themselves in is full of oddball characters who are vicious thugs and passive aggressive in their relationship with the young trio. The Owners works as a damning criticism of the kind of crony mentality that means it’s all who you know in small town Kazakhstan and not what legal rights you actually have over your own property. The plight of the youngsters is cruel, unfair and should be enough to make even the most placid viewer angry but it is also tainted with strange beauty and the calming effect of Aliya’s dancing daydreams.

Oldest brother John is an ex-convict making life for him even tougher while Yerbol harbours dreams of becoming an actor. Neither gets to fulfill their dreams or even gets much of a chance to work for a living. Zhuba is the brother of the police chief who won’t leave them alone and as he has been effectively squatting in their house while they were living in the city, he now considers the property his. While the boys look after their innocent little sister, they also have to contend with nightly visits from Zhuba and his gang of cronies who become increasingly violent. Going to the police is no help and only ends up getting John in more trouble while they all put up with intimidation and having their house trashed by the goons.

The Owners should be resoundingly bleak, the kind of fare that would be too miserable for mass consumption. However, while the film is sad or even tragic, it is also warmed up by the utterly surreal moments of tragicomic weirdness. Even as the characters descend into despair and misery, there is always an oddly dressed character dancing just around the corner. It is disorienting, devoid of any musical score and at times just too distancing to care much about. It is the kind of film that will have a very limited appeal but should be commended for its unflinching auteur’s vision. This is not a film born out of compromise or committee but an original, if highly odd take on modern Kazakhstan.

While the story meanders along and becomes more pessimistic even as the tone gets more outrageous and whimsically funny, the compositions are consistently interesting and at times borderline hilarious. At times, there is the sense of watching a painting come to life with very staged set ups and key close ups punctuating the action. It is assumed that the little girl’s imagination is the cause of some of the stranger moments of characters’ inappropriate dancing but there is also a vibrant use of colour that makes The Owners striking and often hallucinatory.

It is hard to fully care for the characters when Yerzhanov is so keen to get his oddballs to break into dance so often. The Owners should be emotional where it is perhaps a little too unique. It is the kind of film that is impossible to forget but also unlikely to receive a huge amount of love.


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Pete Turner is a Senior Reporter