Yellow Cat is the kind of cribbing-as-mode film that illuminates nothing other than the kinds of movies its director likes.
Godard once declared that all you need to make a film is a girl and a gun. With Yellow Cat, Kazakh filmmaker Adilkhan Yerzhanov has taken that maxim to heart, crafting a deadpan road comedy that’s equal parts lo-fi Wes Anderson and Thieves Like Us (both the novel and its Nick Ray and Robert Altman adaptations). The film traces the paths of holy fool Kermek (Azamat Nigmanov) and hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold gal pal Eva (Kamila Nugmanova) as they go on a quixotic journey to build a movie theater in the middle of nowhere. The pair winds up on the run after stealing money from a local gangster, and the majority of the film charts their misadventures as they travel from place to place and meet colorful, frequently violent weirdos. Apparently more interested in quirks and punchlines than traditional plotting, Yerzhanov paints in pretty broad strokes here: Kermek is obsessed with Alain Delon and Le Samouraï, even reenacting scenes at random to disinterested onlookers, while Eva is a kind of childlike manic pixie dream girl. He’s not shy about his intentions, either, boldly inserting musical cues from Carl Orff’s theme for Badlands (also sampled by Hans Zimmer for True Romance) and references to the landscape paintings of Andrew Wyeth (at one point recreating the famed Christina’s World).
Throughout Yellow Cat, there’s an interesting tension between the goofball characters and brief moments of extreme violence, but even that is undermined by the actors’ constant underplaying. Eventually even gunshots and stabbings take on all the weight of a Looney Tunes short. Yerzhanov tends to arrange people in stationary positions in the frame and then relies on brief, jagged movements and offscreen space for laughs (one example: a man jumps on a trampoline to shoot at some invaders, the reverse angle shot just shows the shooter’s head bobbing up and down from behind a roof). It’s all fitfully amusing, but there’s not much left to chew on once the film becomes repetitive and predictable. Yerzhanov has a keen sense of framing, fully utilizing the widescreen format, and cinematographer Yerkinbek Ptyraliyev has a great eye for lovely, sun-dappled landscapes. But Yellow Cat is the kind of film that teaches you nothing about the culture it came from — or really anything about actual human behavior — and everything about the kinds of movies its director likes.
You can currently stream Adilkhan Yerzhanov’s Yellow Cat on Mubi.
Originally published as part of Venice International Film Festival 2020 — Dispatch 1.