Let the Sunshine In: Uzabayev Drags Us Through the Wretched Realities of Violence Against Women
The knee-jerk response to the agonizing experience of watching a film like Happiness (Baqyt), the fifth feature of Kazakhstan director Askar Uzabayev, is to question for whom this is intended? For what purpose does it serve to emotionally traumatize its audience so harshly? An easy answer would be because we need to see it, collectively, as humans. In more complex terms, it’s mere existence is the key, a product of the inherent infection of globalized misogyny, to varying degrees unchecked, accepted as endemic to our archaically understood, binary conditioned behaviors. That this horror show was directed by a man perhaps requires some contextualization about who has the power to tell stories in Kazakhstan—-perhaps it does not, or rather more appropriately, an aspect to consider long after the suffocating ether of this film passes from anguish into the comfort of mental compartmentalization.
It’s title jumps past the realm of post-irony and into the upside down version of New Sincerity, meant to sledgehammer our emotional capacity for pain and suffering, in ways which seem necessary despite the rudimentary onslaught. So vitriolic, it will likely be dismissed for anyone beyond the specific culture it depicts with the easy excuse of “it’s not like that here or there or where I’m from or am.” And yet, this is a lie, pasted over by empty gestures and muddled bureaucratic olive branches etched onto the mission statements of various broken systems. And while its male characters and tangential female villains are cartoonishly monstrous, you likely won’t forget the bitter tears of Laura Myrzakhmetova’s exceptional characterization.
A woman (Myrzakhmetova) readies herself for the work day, her body bruised and scarred by years of abuse at the hands of her husband (Yerbolat Alkozha). She works selling cosmetics, an occupation she’s recently acquired and takes quite seriously as she’s planning on leaving her husband. But first, they have to get over the hurdle of marrying their daughter (Almagul Sagyndyk) to her much wealthier suitor, partially due to a concealed pregnancy. Mother and daughter share little love between them as the husband much prefers his own daughter to his wife. His powerful and wealthy sister-in-law arranged the marriage and paid for the wedding while also playing a role in keeping the woman’s cycle of abuse in motion. When she briefly suggests her husband find another, younger wife one evening while he’s drunk, he beats her mercilessly and she’s hospitalized. The incident is covered up, but a friendly lawyer has been helping her to file a complaint, which leads to extreme traumatization and consequences higher than she ever dreamed she would have to pay.
We’re informed in the end credits of how Happiness is inspired by real events, a statement which feels as if it has more impact here, followed by statistics about Kazakstan, where 70% of women incarcerated for murder killed their husband and there are no laws protecting their rights or their bodies. It’s important to navigate the particular context of the changes something as brutal as Happiness desires to implement. Or at least generate conversations framed within this own particular culture, because it feels easy to dismiss its savagery.
Is it more elegant (if such a word could be used) than something it recalls, like The Stoning of Soraya M. (2008)? Certainly, if not thanks solely to Myrzakhmetova but also the cinematography of Max Zadarnovskiy, who paints a metropolis as bruised and brooding as its protagonist. There are few moments where Happiness does not turn on or is defined by assault or verbal abuse, showcasing how a network of women sabotaging one another cements these cycles of degradation. The characters of the husband, daughter and sister-in-law are almost laughably cruel in a way which bolster the satirization of this culture in the Borat films.
A sequence with a hammer will ultimately serve as the shortcut to describing this film (which, in turn, draws comparison to the hammer and sickle symbol), but Laura Myrzakhmetova elevates this grueling odyssey considerably, rivaling something like the Samal Yeslyamova performance in Sergey Dvortsevoy’s Ayka (2018). There are two key sequences which are utterly mesmerizing, involving her job hawking cosmetic products to women through a curiously staged sales speech. She comes alive, almost maniacally, in the first sequence, with Vivaldi’s Winter catapulting her to a hypnotic pulpit as she preaches to women about their right to happiness. After a brutal beating and recovery, she resumes work, only to break down disastrously, set to the same piece, as if the music itself is a drug she’s imbibed, drawing out her current hopeful or tortured interiority.
Happiness is a tough film to digest, and maybe eludes criticism for failing to fully attenuate its monstrous assailants beyond selfishness and cruelty in how they treat the demeaned protagonist. And for its dialogue obsessed with the notion of what happiness is and who deserves it, there’s none to be had by anyone in this tiny microcosm perhaps because happiness also requires caring for the well-being of others. But how could that ever happen in a world allowing such flagrant abuse and constant repression?
Reviewed on February 16th at the 2022 Berlin International Film Festival – Panorama Section. 131 mins.