‘Bikechess’ Review: A Withheld Kazakh Comedy-Drama About State Propaganda

While the film’s title is only strictly relevant to its opening scene — in which a TV news station films a made-up hybrid sport — the understated Russian-language drama “Bikechess” captures the absurdities of working within propagandist frameworks. It builds on several of filmmaker Assel Aushakimova’s previous works, as a chronicler of Kazakhstan’s journalism, as well as its social and familial fabrics. The movie often meanders, but its laid-back approach mirrors the frustrating ennui its story seeks to capture, for better and for worse.

Actress Saltanat Nauruz, who led Aushakimova’s first feature “Welcome to the U.S.A.,” reteams with the writer-director for her sophomore effort. Nauruz plays Dina, a field reporter disillusioned with the manufactured slice-of-life stories she’s forced to cover and a woman who can’t quite find the right avenues to channel her professional drive. Aushakimova’s camera follows her from story to story, capturing the daily indignities of having to lie to her audience about various government campaigns, which leads to withholding but observational scenes where no one is really passionate about these lies — from the film crew to their low-level government subjects — but everyone mechanically plays along.

More from Variety

One such scene, in which Dina tries to film a fake initiative where police interact with citizens by the road, expands on Aushakimova’s 2020 short “Comrade Policeman,” though the film as a whole plays like the culmination of all her thematic musings to date, across her one feature and various shorts. For instance, wedges driven between sisters is a recurring premise, which takes root in “Bikechess” in the form of Dina’s queer younger sister Zhanna (Assel Abdimavlenova), a radical activist who puts her body on the line for the causes in which she believes.

Meanwhile, Dina remains unable and unwilling to break free from her confines, though the film doesn’t usually modulate this premise or allow it to evolve in intriguing ways. This is, in some sense, the point: “Bikechess” represents how little in Dina’s immediate sphere actually changes when no one seems willing to break the mold and challenge either Kazakhstan’s power structures or its entrenched conservative norms. In the process, however, the film’s dry, acerbic wit is very rarely politically incendiary or dramatically piercing. It’s a film that simmers on a medium flame and makes its central point very early into its runtime.

It does feature the intimate subplot of Dina’s affair with her married cameraman (Shyngys Beibituly). This illicit romance is depicted through a series of electric silences — the actors’ body language is explosive, especially when their characters are forced to be coy — but disappointingly little actually comes of this exciting throughline, for no other reason than their dynamic simply petering out seems like the most realistic possibility, given the circumstances of Dina’s job. It’s “real,” but that doesn’t mean it’s necessarily engaging. The film’s commitment to naturalism extends to a lack of music, though this unfortunately leads to several instances of dead air, sans any meaningful artistic commentary

Aushakimova and cinematographer Aidar Ospanov take an unobtrusive, almost documentarian approach to each scene, which works to capture reaction shots that comment on various ongoing government rigmaroles. However, its more personal narratives, involving Dina and her immediate circle, often end up approached as superficially as the fluff pieces she’s forced to cover, with no real recourse. While this yields a film that wholly embodies the lack of possibility it depicts, the result isn’t always alluring or stimulating enough to make its case in more than a distant, academic manner.

Best of Variety

Sign up for Variety’s Newsletter. For the latest news, follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.