Review: Horse Thieves

The unwieldy title of this feature film from Kazakhstan that was trotted out for film festivals is The Horse Thieves, The Road of Time, which is far too much information and points to a loss of clarity as to what the purpose of the movie is as a piece of art or entertainment. For sure, the basic narrative idea, which mixes romantic intrigue with action and danger, is dramatically absorbing, but the whole exotic component of the setting and the culture as emphasized by the cinematography and production design points to its promotion as some kind of precious artifact. Then there’s the subtext of having a Japanese actor play the romantic male lead opposite a Kazakh actor who won a Best Actress prize at Cannes, as well as the directing credit being shared by a young Japanese director, even though the story and overall aesthetic is obviously the product of the award-winning Kazakh director.

Thankfully, the end result is nowhere near the kind of mish-mash of cross purposes this description could indicate, though it may have had something to do with the film’s lack of originality and ambition. The principals have described the story as a Western on the steppes, which is a useful reduction. The head of a family (Dulyga Akmolda) living in a remote area of Kazakhstan leaves his wife and children alone for a number of days as he goes to the regional market to sell some horses, and during his journey he is set upon by thieves who steal the horses and kill the man. After being informed of her husband’s murder, Aigal (Samal Yesyamova) holds a village funeral and struggles to raise her three children on her own. Coincidentally, on the day of the funeral, a mysterious Shane-like figure arrives in the village. Kairat (Mirai Moriyama), a freelance horse trainer passing through, calls on Aigal, and the relationship between the two, as well as between Kairat and Aigal’s 10-year-old son, Olzhas (Madi Minaidarov), is revealed in subtle ways.

Most of what transpires is predictable to anyone familiar with Westerns or even this kind of rural, former-Soviet-bloc cinema, which takes nothing away from the way directors Yerlan Nurmukhambetov and Lisa Takeba stage the climax for maximum suspense and excitement without betraying the naturalistic tone of the production. If the rest of the movie had been approached with this open sense of risk, it might have made more of a distinct impression, not so much as a faithful pastiche of certain tried-and-true narrative patterns but as something that tried to reach beyond such patterns to something sublime. For sure, the horse work and the cinematography by Aziz Zhambakiev is especially strong, so maybe it was just a case of too many cooks.

In Kazakh. Now playing in Tokyo at Shinjuku Cinema Qualite (03-3352-5645).

Horse Thieves home page in Japanese.

photo (c) Olzhas no Shiroi Uma Seisaku Iinkai

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