'The Horse Thieves. Roads of Time': Film Review

Busan International Film Festival
An elegant, simple meditation on survival and loss.

Cannes best actress winner Samal Yeslyamova ('Ayka') stars in this Kazakh-Japanese family drama.

The emergent Kazakh film industry continues to truck along while also leading the charge in forging a distinct Central Asian visual identity — similar to the so-called Scandinavian vibe — this time with director Yerlan Nurmukhambetov and his third collaborator Lisa Takeba on The Horse Thieves. Roads of Time. The Kazakhstan-Japan co-production is something of a muted choice with which to open this year's Busan International Film Festival, but it’s also an exemplar of the vivid geographical, cultural and perspective alternatives the fest thrives on showcasing.

Backed by prosaic humanitarian details and bleak-beautiful widescreen photography by Silver Bear winner Aziz Zhambakiev (Harmony Lessons), The Horse Thieves should find a long, healthy life on the festival circuit in the wake of its world premiere. The art house and Kazakh tags are going to make it a target for specialized streaming services, but the film is best served on the big screen.

Rumor has it director and writer Nurmukhambetov didn’t know if he was making a Western or not when he started shooting, but that indecision doesn’t show in his sure-handed storytelling, which is more fixated on mood, meaning and emotion than on action. Nonetheless, The Horse Thieves is indeed a neo-Western, about 10-year-old Olzhas (Madi Minaidarov in his debut) dealing with several devastating and disruptive events in his young life. More is said in Nurmukhambetov and Takeba’s silences (occasionally punctured by nature) than either of them could possibly have written, and their creative choices here demonstrate more mature artistic directions for both directors, best known for oddball comedies (Walnut Tree and The Pinkie, respectively).

The story begins with Olzhas following his father, Odasyn (Dulyga Akmolda), around as the man prepares to head to market to sell some of his horses, a valuable commodity on the desolate steppes of Kazakhstan where life as a herdsman is still common. With Olzhas hovering, Odasyn bids a silent farewell to his wife, Aigul (Cannes best actress winner Samal Yeslyamova, Ayka), who spends her days harvesting tomatoes from the few fields. Odasyn joins a couple of friends — one of whom gives Odasyn one of his new kittens for his son — to go broker a cash deal for the animals, but while escorting the horses back for the buyers, they run into “car trouble.” Odasyn and his mates are murdered, and the thieves take off with the horses and the money. The mewling kitten alerts a passing shepherd to the crime scene.

At the same time Olzhas and his two sisters reckon with their father’s death, Aigul makes plans to leave the village (if you can call it that) and its bad blood behind. Appearing seemingly out of nowhere is Kairat (Japanese actor Mirai Moriyama, best known for Isao Yukisada’s Crying Out Love, in the Centre of the World), a friend missing for eight years — and Olzhas’ biological father. On the trip out of town, Kairat encounters the original horse thieves, a high noon-type shootout ensues and another father is potentially lost.

Running at a lean 85 minutes, The Horse Thieves manages to be brisk without feeling unfulfilled, never wearing out its welcome but always saying what it needs to about the struggle to simply exist in such conditions and Olzhas’ unfocused pain. Answers and tidy conclusions aren’t the endgame here — a portrait of a tough, occasionally brutal world and the fathers and sons that inhabit it is. In many ways, the pic is a clinic in visual filmmaking. There is so much tension, regret, rage, fear and sorrow in the unspoken — between Odasyn and Olzhas, between Odasyn and Aigul, between Aigul and Kairat — that there’s no need for gratuitous exposition.

Zhambakiev’s stark, sweeping images emphasize how overwhelming this world is, how lost Olzhas can feel within it and why he’s so quick to dream his way out of it. It’s often said the devil is in the details, and the ones Nurmukhambetov zeroes in on simply add to the complete picture: a wristwatch, abandoned animals, the icy, perfunctory way a cop deals with Odasyn’s death. It is to the film’s credit that threads don’t get tied off and dynamics go unexplained. If there’s such a thing as a small epic, The Horse Thieves. Roads of Time might be it.

Production companies: Kazakhfilm, Tokyo New Cinema
Cast: Samal Yeslyamova, Madi Minaidarov, Mirai Moriyama, Dulyga Akmolda
Directors: Yerlan Nurmukhambetov, Lisa Takeba
Screenwriter: Yerlan Nurmukhambetov
Producers: Julia Kim, Hikaru Kinouchi, Serik Zhubandykov, Shozo Ichiyama
Executive producer: Assel Yerzhanova
Director of photography:
Aziz Zhambakiev
Production designer: Sasha Shogay
Costume designer: Kamila Nurmukhambetov
Editor: Nursultan Nuskabekov
Music: Akmaral Zykaeva

Venue: Busan International Film Festival
World sales:
Kazakhfilm

In Kazakh
84 minutes