Myn Bala: Warriors of the Steppe: Doha Tribeca Film Festival Review

Myn Bala: Warriors of the Steppe

Kazakhstan's "Myn Bala: Warriors of the Steppe" is one of six official foreign-language Oscar submissions screening at DTFF.

Once upon a time in the Wild East.

Already a record-breaking hit at home, Kazakhstan’s official Academy Awards entry is a period action blockbuster about the teenage freedom fighter who liberated his entire nation.

A kind of Central Asian hybrid of Braveheart and 300, Kazakhstan’s official entry in the best foreign-language Oscar race is a sabre-rattling, chest-beating, flag-waving celebration of a mythic warrior hero from the early 18th century. The title translates as “the thousand boys”, an exaggerated reference to a few hundred young guerrilla fighters who fought back against occupation by the Dzungars, a merciless Mongol tribe descended from Genghis Khan. The definitive victory against these invaders came at the Battle of Anyrakay in 1729, a landmark date in Kazakh independence.

A state-sponsored epic made to commemorate the 20th anniversary of Kazakhstan’s secession from the crumbling Soviet Union, Myn Bala now ranks second only to Avatar in local box-office receipts. Fast-moving and visually ravishing, it was made by seasoned action director Akan Satayev on a reported budget of about $12 million -- huge by Kazakh standards -- with production values to match. All the same, such a parochial story will be a tough sell to foreign distributors and audiences. Even if it grabs an Oscar nomination, some smart marketing along the lines of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon will be required to generate serious interest abroad.

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Chosen from more than 20,000 contenders, screen novice Asylkhan Tolepov plays Sartay, a teenage freedom fighter whose name is legend in Kazakhstan. A delicate beauty with male-model looks, Tolepov makes an unlikely guerrilla leader but an engaging and dynamic lead. Other juvenile roles are filled by his fellow students from the Almaty theatre school, who hold their own against an older cast of mostly professional actors.

The movie’s chief flaw is its thuddingly simplistic fairy-tale script, which makes the average Bollywood melodrama seem understated by comparison. All the Kazakh fighters are noble young heroes forever proclaiming their readiness to die for the honor of their homeland and their womenfolk. Conversely, the Dzungars are uniformly ugly, black-clad, bestial conquerors with no qualms about killing children or torching entire villages. No prizes for subtlety or historical accuracy or nuanced depiction of geopolitical conflict. Then again, such trivialities did not trouble Braveheart either.

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To their credit, Satayev and his team do their best to give this local story a universal resonance. Switch the costumes, and their stirring portrait of a raggle-taggle bandit army rising up against brutal imperial oppressors could equally apply to Robin Hood, the French Resistance, even Star Wars. There certainly are echoes of Luke Skywalker in Sartay’s childhood backstory. 

Most of all, Satayev’s period blockbuster impresses with its widescreen landscapes and epic combat scenes. Staged by a team that includes veterans of 300 and the Russian action smash Daywatch, the battles are bloody and gripping affairs featuring some spectacular showpiece stunts, one involving a burning horse. Sumptuously shot by Khasan Kydyraliyev and color-graded in the rich candy hues of vintage postcards, the snowy peaks and lush valleys of the Kazakh steppe appear to contain scenery that rivals the Rockies and the Grand Canyon. If nothing else, Myn Bala should boost tourism to Kazakhstan. Who knows? It might even repair some of the damage caused by Borat.

Venue: Doha Tribeca film festival screening, Nov. 18
Production companies: Kazakhfilm Studio, New Film Format, Sataifilm
Producers: Anna Katchko, Yeskendir Nurbergen, Aliya Uvalzhanov, Thessa Mooij
Cast: Asylkhan Tolepov, Kuralay Anarbekova, Aliya Anuarbek, Aliya Telebarisova
Director: Akan Satayev
Writers: Muhammed Mamyrbekov, Jayik Sizdikov, Timur Zhaksylykov
Cinematographer: Khasan Kydyraliyev
Editors: Christopher Robin Bell, Nicolas Trembasiewicz
Music: Renat Gaisin
Sales company: Kazakhfilm Studio
No MPAA rating, 108 minutes