AYSULU ONARAN | KAZAKHSTAN, BELARUS, UNITED KINGDOM, RUSSIA + USA | 2022 | 101 MIN | RUSSIAN S.-T.EN.
Its premise arising from a 2006 incident in Kazakhstan involving tainted blood transfusions, Balaban filters this tragic event through a stylish coming-of-age thriller shot through with tumultuous romance as two Kazakh teenagers choose unethical means to fulfil their Paris fantasy.
Writer-director Aysulu Onaran’s closeness to the subject matter – after years of charity work with HIV-positive youth and those facing gender abuse – reveals itself in Balaban’s marriage of philosophical contemplation and heart-in-throat dread. Their HIV diagnosis affects both privileged Zhanna (Kamila Fun-So) and orphaned Ardak (Irina Gylko), pushing them to seek solace in one another and the promise of a move to Paris. But trouble looms on all sides when they decide to steal a rare Balaban falcon to fund their escape, including taxed authority figures, a gun-toting falcon smuggler (Chingiz Kapin), and their ever-present conditions. Onaran sharpens the film’s sleek edge with dynamic camerawork, her compositions at times like contemporary artworks, at other times approaching the whiz-bang energy of Wes Anderson, to capture Kazakhstan’s eldritch beauty. Never losing sight of the “beautifully simple” promise of living and loving while one still can.