Self-billed as “An Oriental fairy tale,” Ashik Kerib is the final feature film of visionary Russian auteur Sergei Parajanov, a friend & contemporary of Andrei Tarkovsky (to whom the film is dedicated). The parallels between the Soviet Era directors’ work are clear once you know to look for them. Much like how Andrei Rublev finds Tarkovsky defiantly rummaging through the art & philosophy of Russia’s deeply religions past from a Russian Orthodox perspective, Ashik Kerib finds Parajanov doing the same for the country’s more Eastern philosophical heritage, sans the Christianity. Parajanov also shares Tarkovsky’s prioritization of crafting a striking image above all else, often composing an interesting frame at the expense of establishing or expanding an narrative plot. And yet Ashik Kerib lives up to a standard no Tarkovsky work I’ve seen can claim: it’s punk as fuck.
Adapted from an Arabian Nights-style fairy tale penned by esteemed poet Mikhail Lermentov, Ashik Kerib tells the deliberately episodic story of a romantic traveling minstrel who embarks on a 1000-day journey to earn enough money to wed his beloved, against her greedy father’s wishes. At just 70 minutes in length (seemingly a third of the runtime of a typical Tarkovsky picture), the film is little more than a series of living tableaus anarchically arranged for the camera. This is a stubbornly D.I.Y. production, telegraphing the lush costuming & cinematography of modern works like The Fall & Tale of Tales, while also functioning as a minor work of avant-garde theatre. It presents Early (East) Russian art with the same religious reverence as Andrei Rublev, but maintains a flippantly D.I.Y. ethos throughout – as best evidenced by its cheap two-man tiger costume & its anachronistic inclusion of plastic toy machine guns. Ashik Kerib mirrors the visual fixations of a Tarkovsky-type art film, but presents them with so much streamlined energy & D.I.Y. flippancy that the parallels become more blurred & inscrutable the more you strain to compare them.
When considering the basic visual aesthetic of Ashik Kerib, it more closely recalls the Eastern psychedelia & avant-garde theatre of hippie culture than the sneering urban toughness of punk. Still, there’s something snottily defiant about its lack of concern with plot, historical accuracy, and textural consistency that makes the film feel punk in spirit. It feels more like a descendant of the No Wave scene, John Waters, or The Cockettes than anything to do with Tarkovsky, especially considering its restraint in indulgence as a 70-minute novelty. As a D.I.Y., Eastern-minded perversion of the Andrei Rublev tradition, this series of living tableaus masquerading as an anthology piece is too slight & too sloppy to be hailed as a masterpiece, but also too visually stunning to be ignored entirely. I’d more likely recommend it to diehard fans of The Fall than to anyone with a Stalker tattoo, but its point of contrast as a punk-as-fuck Tarkovsky deviation still offers it a fascinating context.