Rotterdam 2022 Review: ASSAULT, Deadpan Tragicomedy Shocks Less Than It Amuses

From Kazakhstan and director Adilkhan Yerzhanov comes a comic thriller about a teacher and his fellow parents deciding to fight back against an armed invasion of their school.

Contributor; Slovakia (@martykudlac)
Rotterdam 2022 Review: ASSAULT, Deadpan Tragicomedy Shocks Less Than It Amuses

Kazakh director Adilkhan Yerzhanov, and his producers, appears to be in peak condition.

After his feature film Herd Immunity, which premiered in December 2021 at the Tallinn Film Festival, the director's latest film enjoyed its world premiere at the International Film Festival Rotterdam. Yerzhanov is by now a well-recognized brand on the international film festival and arthouse circuit.

In addition to building a reputation for himself, he is also building a sobering alternative to movie series packaged as cinematic universes by major studios. Yerzhanov has been unfolding a cinematic series of his own, with each story taking place in the fictional Karatas Village.

Assault marks the latest installment to the ever-expanding Karatas Universe, with probably the most provocative and controversial-sounding subject to come off from the satirical and whimsical director. The film starts with and revolves around a group of masked men that takes over a school in the middle of nowhere, most likely inspired by a Beslan school attack.

Teachers, along with the most students, manage to flee through the emergency route; however,  some kids remain in the building at the mercy of the perpetrators. Yerzhanov does not leave much to wish-fulfillment, showing unexpected killings in the school corridors.

When the adults regroup at a feeble ramshackle police station to alert authorities about the attack and the hostage situation, the response comes in Yerzhanov's typical satirical riposte, to the effect that the Kazakh equivalent of the SWAT team will arrive in several days due to the weather conditions.


However, math teacher Taszhy made the unfortunate mistake of locking pupils in the classroom before he went to calm his nerves with a cigarette at the moment the supposed terrorists broke in. Under the sudden circumstances and fearing for his life, he does the most rational thing in his fight-or-flight binary reaction. Unfortunately, his son has been left behind in the locked classroom.

After coming to his senses, and calculating how many children may be killed until the squad arrives, the unheroic Taszhy becomes the leader of a ragtag band of teachers and parents to storm the school and save the kids. In order to properly orchestrate the attack, the group participates in a series of training and tutorials in the snowy Kazakhstan plains.

Yerzhanov is the master of narrative setup in Assault, as he introduces all the members of the upcoming teacher-parent squad in the film's opening scenes, underlying their farcical characteristics. The director plays on those character traits throughout the haphazard training sessions.

While school shootings are a sensitive topic, Yerzhanov detaches from the traumatic experience by focusing solely on the parent-teacher group. In this manner, Assault completely fulfills its satirical and farcical potential on following the group of inept misfits in the director's signature deadpan black humor.


Yellow Cat and Herd Immunity belong into the category of Yerzanov´s films that are more colorful, and despite the circumstances, are even more cheerful (to watch). Assault leans more to the poetics of A Dark, Dark Man, a bleaker tragicomedy with awkward humor. Assault turns out more hilarious as Yerzhanov tinkers with situational comedy in his own original style.

Corruption remains a ubiquitous motif spread throughout the Karatas Village universe, and Assault continues in developing the topic of crisis in institutions with a story about a dysfunctional family and another one of society's malaises, that is, the overblown machismo and other distorted forms of masculinity. Yerzhanov, who so frequently dabbles in hyperbole, keeps it within the limits of his signature austere aesthetics.

While Yellow Cat was driven by cinematic metatextuality in terms of its satire, Assault reaches the dimensions of an odd spoof on action-thriller films, although more as a by-product of the social tragicomedy, rather than being designed as an outright genre parody.

The notorious storyline of ill-fitting and overly incompatible characters who are forced to learn to cooperate to be able to move forward may be Assault's plot backbone. Yet the director does it on its own terms in a hilarious crossover of social dramedy and farce, driven by undercurrents of dark humor, which are so often powering the anti-climatic punchlines in Yerzhanov's works.

The film screened in competition recently at the International Film Festival Rotterdam

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Adilkhan YerzhanovAssaultIFFR 2022KazakhstanRotterdam 2022

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