'Kurmanjan Datka Queen of the Mountains': Film Review
Kyrgyzstan's Oscar submission is an epic drama set high on the steppes of Central Asia
A historical biopic profiling the stateswoman who helped unite Kyrgyzstan in the 1800s, Kurmanjan Datka Queen of the Mountains is also the country's foreign-language film Oscar entry. Epic in scope and nationalistic in tone, but lacking either compelling performances or cohesive narrative structure, the film faces scant likelihood of awards recognition or further theatrical exhibition following a week-long qualifying run.
Heavy with the burden of cultural conflict, 19th century Central Asia is depicted in the movie as a region in turmoil: Beset over the centuries by the armies of Genghis Khan and then Tamerlane, along with numerous other ethnic invaders, by the early 1800s Kyrgyzstan had been reduced to a sliver of its former territory, splintering the remaining population into 40 different tribes forced to survive on the high steppe or in remote mountain ranges. Kurmanjan, a girl born into an ordinary family from the Alai highland region, is no different from her contemporaries, until a seer singles her out for a mysterious destiny. By the time she reaches maturity, Kurmanjan (Elina Abai Kyzy) is betrothed to a local tribesman, but when he and his family abuse her, the young woman escapes her forced marriage, returning home and bringing shame on her devoutly Muslim family.
Her honor is restored when Alymbek, the local leader ("Datka") appointed by Emir Muzzaffar (Ashyr Chokubaev) marries her instead, relocating Kurmanjan to his tribal encampment, along with her younger brother Akbalban (Mirlan Abdulaev), who's appointed captain of the Datka's guard. Alymbek’s greatest ambition is to unite the tribes of the region under joint leadership to form an alliance that can repel new invaders threatening the borderlands, an aspiration that Kurmanjan passionately shares.
The jealous son of the Emir opposes unification efforts however, seeking to keep power centralized in his family's control, and secretly sends an assassin to murder Alymbek as he's attempting to make peace with the northern tribes. Fearing a power vacuum, the Emir appoints Kurmanjan as Datka, an unprecedented step recognizing a woman leader just as a new threat appears on the horizon. As the Imperial Russian Army cleaves through Central Asia, Kurmanjan's Alai homeland lies directly in its path, forcing her to decide whether making peace or making war is the best choice for the survival of her family and her people.
Writer-producer Sadyk Sher-Niyaz's feature directorial debut is both Kyrgyzstan’s biggest-budget production and its highest-grossing domestic film ever, and it's clear why two companies reportedly sank the equivalent of $1.5 million into the film to assure its box office success. Profiling a female national hero whose policies limited Russian hegemony in the region is a sure crowd-pleaser, as is portraying Kurmanjan as a patriotic advocate of women's self-determination.
The challenge with such expansive source material, however, is keeping the film focused on a coherent narrative through line. Sher-Niyaz and editor Eldiar Madakim can't seem to wrestle the story into shape though, even over the bloated two hour-plus running time. Key periods in Kurmanjan's life jump from one to another, years or even decades apart, without adequately signifying the passage of time. Relationships between power brokers are often vague, particularly with regard to their impact on Kurmanjan's efforts to safeguard the Alai region, muddling motivations and outcomes.
Key castmembers would appear to have little more experience than the director, essaying their roles with minimal impact or style. Sher-Niyaz at least demonstrates a productive relationship with cinematographer Murat Aliyev, capturing Kyrgyzstan’s expansive landscapes in widescreen splendor. Particularly noteworthy are the production and costume design by the team of Zhamal Kozhakmetov, Abylkasym Ismailov and Inara Abdieva, who render the various aspects of period culture with impressive detail.
Production companies: Kyrgyz Film, Aitysh Film
Cast: Elina Abai Kyzy, Nazira Mamnetova, Aziz Muradilaev, Mirlan Abdulaev, Adyl Bolorbek uulu, Adilet Usubaliev, Ulan Omuraliev, Ashyr Chokubaev
Director-writer: Sadyk Sher-Niyaz
Producers: Zhyldyzkan Dzholdoshova, Sadyk Sher-Niyaz
Executive producer: Farkhad Bekmanbetov
Director of photography: Murat Aliyev
Production designers: Zhamal Kozhakmetov, Abylkasym Ismailov
Costume Designer: Inara Abdieva
Editor: Eldiar Madakim
Music: Didier Bakyt Alisherov, Murzali Zheenaliyev
Casting director: Akylbek Abdykalykov
No rating, 136 minutes