'The Steed': Film Review

Three Flames Pictures
A handsome Wild East adventure hobbled by its mawkish, over-earnest tone.

Mongolia's official Oscars submission is a stirring historical drama about a young nomad boy and his beloved horse.

In epic Mongolian poetry, no bond is as strong or as deep as the love between a boy and his horse. Dating back to the Genghis Khan era, this centuries-old literary motif lives on in Mongolia's latest submission to the Oscars and Golden Globes in the best international film race, The Steed, which is essentially a bromance between a four-legged hero and his devoted human soulmate.

An award-winning actor-director in Mongolia, Erdenebileg Ganbold's stirring historical pageant is designed to glorify his homeland's nomadic culture, tradition and folklore for a younger generation that is forgetting them. But his earnest treatment of these themes is probably too locally specific and dramatically simplistic to resonate much beyond the domestic market, where this thuddingly old-fashioned yarn has already been a box office hit. After winning big prizes at Oldenburg and San Diego film festivals, The Steed gallops into Palm Springs this week.

Based on the 1962 poem Brown Horse by Mongolia's former national poet laureate Ch. Lkhamsuren, The Steed takes place in the early 20th century, soon after the Russian revolution. In a bravura opening sequence, Ganbold lays out the film's panoramic visual canvas of sweeping plains, colorful costumes, sturdy yurts, stoic herdsmen and proud horseback warriors. We first encounter the plucky pre-teen protagonist Chuluun (Ariunbold Erdenebayar) dangling from a vertical cliff high above a river, bravely trying to pick a rare snow lotus flower, hoping its medicinal properties will help cure his sick mother (Enkhtuul G.). The boy's partner in this gravity-defying stunt is his beloved horse Rusty, his best and apparently only friend.

Left orphaned by his mother's death, Chuluun is devastated when he is parted from his beloved Rusty by a ruthless, toothless, devious fake holy man. A perilous episodic adventure follows that takes him to all corners of Mongolia. Meanwhile, his beloved equine buddy embarks on an even more eventful voyage involving bandits, crooked land barons, drunken peasant farmers and gun-toting Russian soldiers. He heroically rescues himself from a deadly swamp, narrowly escapes being hacked up into Mongolian barbecue, and even reunites an estranged Kazakh family by assisting in the birth of their new baby, like some kind of magical reverse horse whisperer.

The pleasures of The Steed lie mostly in its widescreen, grand-scale, tourist-friendly spectacle. Ganbold, who also plays a co-starring role, lays out the story against a vast geographical canvas that encompasses rolling tundra, parched deserts, snowy peaks and idyllic lakes. He also orchestrates some pleasingly kinetic action scenes, notably a horseback gun battle that uses body-mounted cameras for extra immersive effect. All of this Wild East action is set to a sumptuous score, played by Mongolia's National Symphony Orchestra, which blends traditional folk instrumentation with rousing strings and brass.

But classy ingredients are not enough to save The Steed from its overly sentimental, heavy-handed elements. Because Ganbold's equine epic is marred by flat characterization and leaden, on-the-nose dialogue, in its English-speaking subtitles at least. The screenplay is also hobbled by too many windy, portentous speeches about the deep love all Mongolians feel for their homeland and its traditions. Any movie that ends with an actual horse shedding tears of patriotic joy has clearly jumped the fence between overcooked pathos and preposterous kitsch.

Production company: Three Flames Pictures
Cast: Ariunbold Erdenebayar, Enkhtuul G., Tserendagva Purevdorj, Mendbayar Dagvadorj, Erdenebileg Ganbold, Vasiliy Mishchenko, Aidos Bektemir, Aleksandr Kalashnik
Director: Erdenebileg Ganbold
Screenwriters: Erdenebileg Ganbold, Khuubaatar Ulziisuren
Producers: Erdenebileg Ganbold, Alexa Khan, Trevor Doyle
Cinematographer: Baatar Batsukh
Editor: Tuguldur Munkh-Ochir
Sales company: Media Luna New Films, Cologne
110 minutes