“Ayka”, which was selected as the Kazakhstani entry for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar in 2018, is a cold and bleak presentation of one very desperate illegal immigrant worker. Although you will not be that surprised by its phlegmatic presentation of human exhaustion and desperation if you are familiar with countless similar films out there, the movie keeps holding our attention as duly following its heroine’s ongoing plight, and it is also carried well by a strong lead performance at its center.
Samal Yeslyamova, who won the Best Actress award for her work in here in this film when it was shown at the Cannes Film Festival nearly three years ago, plays Ayka, a 25-year-old Kazakhstani woman who has just given birth to a baby who was conceived under a rather unspecified circumstance. While she is supposed to rest more and take care of her baby at a local hospital located somewhere in Moscow, Ayka promptly runs away from the hospital without paying any attention to her baby, and we soon come to gather how things are quite hard and difficult for her at present. She came to Moscow for working to earn enough money to pay off the debt caused by her innocent business ambition, and she really has to keep working as usual before those debt collectors in Kazakhstan call her again.
However, her situation turns out to be much more daunting than expected. When Ayka comes to her current workplace, she tries to work as hard as before, but, not so surprisingly, she often does not feel that well due to her weak physical condition. When she later demands her current employer that he should pay the delayed wage to her and her co-workers as soon as possible, her current employer promises that they will get paid once everything is done well, but, of course, she and her co-workers belatedly come to realize that they are not going to get their wage at all.
When Ayka comes back to a stuffy place where she has been stuck with her fellow illegal immigrant workers from Kazakhstani, the circumstance becomes gloomier than before. While she manages to get some rest within a small private spot, she receives a call from her debt collectors again, and it later turns out that these guys, who seem to be someone she should not mess with at any chance, have already reached to one of her close family members. Naturally, Ayka becomes more desperate in her search for any possible job on the very next day, but it looks like she really hits the bottom as every attempt of hers is thwarted. At one point, she goes to where she was once employed, but she is cruelly rejected because her previous position has been already occupied by some other young Kazakhstani woman.
Meanwhile, Moscow and its citizens are enduring a record-breaking snowfall in the middle of winter, and the resulting wintry atmosphere further emphasizes the harsh and uncaring environment surrounding Ayka. When she manages to get a small opportunity of employment, she subsequently looks for a certain place where she is supposed to be employed, but she soon gets lost to her frustration, and nobody passing by her is willing to help while her physical condition becomes more deteriorated than before.
After the relentless gloominess during the first half of the film, it is rather relieving for us to see its heroine receiving little bits of kindness from a few other people during its second half. As a pet hospital where she happens to enter for using its bathroom, Ayka comes across an older Kazakhstani woman working there as a janitor, and this woman generously provides Ayka a temporary shelter even though she is frequently busy with handling her own matters. She later introduces Ayka to a place where she can get some medical help and advice, and a no-nonsense woman running that illegal place clearly and compassionately discerns what Ayka needs, even though Ayka keeps lying about her physical condition.
While closely sticking to its heroine via a number of extended hand-held shots, the movie sometimes shifts its intense focus to what is going on around her. Not long after Ayka begins to work at that pet hospital instead of that older woman for a while, there comes a plain but impressive scene involved with a female dog which recently gave birth to several puppies but still needs some more treatment. We can sense how much this moment affects Ayka, even though the camera simply stares at the dog and her puppies instead of Ayka’s face.
Sadly, the screenplay by director Sergey Dvortsevoy and his co-writer Gennadiy Ostrovskiy feels too contrived as pushing its heroine further into more despair and desperation around its weak finale. Although Yeslyamova, who shined as one of the substantial supporting characters in Dvortsevoy’s charming previous work “Tulplan” (2008), still engages us as before, but the finale does not work as well as intended, and its expected ambiguousness on whatever will happen next after the very final shot of the film is too trite in my inconsequential opinion.
Overall, “Ayka”, which is somehow released in South Korean theaters in this week, mostly works as the showcase of its lead actress’ undeniable talent and presence, but I must point out that it does not break any new ground in its genre territory as merely presenting numerous typical elements ranging from dizzy camera movements to austere story and character development. I admire it to some degree, but, folks, now I am seriously considering taking a vacation in the warm and gentle humanity of “Tulpan”.