Credit: Tribeca Film Festival
by Joshua Polanski Featured Film

Bikechess — Assel Aushakimova [Tribeca ’24 Review]

June 19, 2024

Bikechess is a strange name for Assel Aushakimova’s latest work. The scene that gives the Kazakh film its name comes in the beginning, with the television newswoman Dina (Saltanat Nauruz) reporting on the invention of an absurd new sport called “bikechess,” meant to combine the physical exertion required of cycling with the intellectual requirements of chess. Quite literally, the new game is simply the two activities smashed together: the two players ride exercise bikes with a chess board in between them. After this, Aushakimova never returns to the sport, and nor should she have. The English title instead speaks to the unique absurdities of life in modern Kazakhstan as observed by a jaded TV journalist and as the stories she reports on — the film’s main point of continuity — grow in their incredulity. From a scientist claiming life on Earth started in what’s now called Kazakhstan to a somewhat mystifying staged event involving rabbits, the world Aushakimova builds is so strange that if it weren’t for her employment of a social naturalism style, Bikechess almost wouldn’t make any sense.

The director borrows and translates quite a bit from the modern European social-drama school developed by filmmakers like the Dardenne brothers into the Kazakh context. The dialectic creates something familiar to both worlds, but new in itself. One way this can be seen is through the seamless addition of the deadpan and black comedy so common in contemporary Kazakh films to the close-quarters handheld cinematography and social issue subject matter regularly found in the European social drama. Dina’s lesbian sister (Assel Abdimavlenova), for example, is arrested for protesting with a blank poster (in a country where it would be generous to describe the freedom to assemble as threatened). The film’s most amusing joke might be when a woman snaps at the TV news crew to do something useful like “go and grow some potatoes” because people are starving. A recurring dry joke pokes fun at the renaming of the capital city from Nur-Sultan to Astana (the latter means “capital city” whereas the former is merely the first name of a former president). The director and her actors are well aware that the basic circumstances they are acting out here are, in fact, quite dumb. But life can be dumb. And therein lies the genius of this marrying of comedy and “festival drama,” as it may as well be called.

The cops of Aushakimova’s Kazakhstan stand for either nothing good or nothing at all. For starters, they have the attention spans of gerbils. Each appearance of a police officer arrives with their eyes and fingers glued to their phones, a device symbolic of distraction and idleness, the latter of which offers up a major theme and even appears in the dialogue when Dina quips that her driver also “suffers” from idleness. But for the cops, they are at their best when they are distracted and useless. One of Dina’s many newscasts involves a staged conversation with a police officer that is so tedious it becomes intriguing as a failure of both a functioning state and media. At their worst, the cops (like anywhere else in the world) are abusive, misogynistic, and, at their ethical nadir, murderous.  

Elsewhere, the queer and feminist subject matter in the film functions as both secondary in terms of the plot’s concern and primary in terms of its emotional center. Other than Dina’s married cameraman that she sometimes fucks, her only personal anchor to the world is her rebellious younger sister Zhanna. She burns for change and will be damned if she doesn’t start it herself; her age and attitude toward change might hit a bit close to home for the film’s primary audience following the unrest in January of 2022. Her girlfriend (Sarsen Asyl) stays out of the crazy protests, but their love itself provides another thorn for the material. In a moment set so distantly in the frame that it’s easy to miss, Zhanna kisses and hugs her girlfriend goodbye before she hops in a cab, before slyly sneaking her phone out and snagging a picture of the license plate. She never says anything about it, nor does Dina ask (we see the entire thing from the latter’s perspective, spying from the upstairs window). In this world, in our world, the act of precaution speaks loudly enough.

Published as part of Tribeca Film Festival 2024 — Dispatch 3.