I tend to do films for Movie Monday that are based on history I know a little bit about, but this film is something of an exception. I found it while browsing the Netflix selection for the term “Historical” and had no idea what the hell it was about, so naturally I had to watch it. Apparently it’s based on politics and warfare in 18th-century Kazakhstan, and is one of the genre of sweeping, slightly didactic national epics I’ve come to rely on for my history-movie fix.
OK, so we start off in 18th century Kazakhstan. The lands of the Kazakh Orda are being invaded by the Dzungarians. The first thing the Dzungars do is shoot a little boy and a sheep, so I don’t think we’re being given a very nuanced portrayal of them, although we’ll see. Armoured horsemen galloping about, people running in slow motion through the rain, and our infant hero’s village all getting murdered up by the invaders. Sartai, our hero, sees his parents get stabbed up, takes up a club and cold knocks a dude out with it, then has to run off with a handful of refugees. We’re like five minutes in and we’re going the full Conan with this movie. Sounds good to me.
Seven years later, Sartai, grown to man’s estate, is a hunter, noble and true, learning to ride, do feats of acrobatics, shoot stuff with his bow, wrestle, etc. But he and his family are still in hiding from the bad old Dzungars. Clearly we’re going for a kind of Robin Hood vibe here. Sartai and buddy Taimas are being told stories of the great hero Alpamys. There is a flat-out stated message about how all Kazakhs have to be united to stand up to the invaders. Suuuuubtle. Oh, and some praises of the natural beauty of the homeland: “our steppe is so beautiful!” It does look pretty good in these shots, actually. National historical epics always have kind of creepy fascist leanings but are still fun.
Uncle Nazar disapproves of the kids galloping around on the steppe where anyone could see them. He takes them to a village, where there are some amazing hats in evidence. The spring festival is going on, and the local wrasslin’ champ is challenging all comers. Sartai is goaded into fighting him and wins the valuable coat which is the prize — but offends the fighter’s dad, the local big cheese.
Up to this point, if I had said “it is a Kazakh national epic about their victory over the invading Dzungarians, and the hero is a teenager,” you could have written this up to this point already (and picked the soundtrack, too; throat-singing aplenty!) And nothing changes when our heroes fall out with the village folks because they’ve made peace with the Dzungars. Soon Sartai and Taimas are killin’ Dzungars and raisin’ hell. Tomboy Khorlan joins their crusade. Taimas is full of anger; Sartai has some doubts. The Dzungars wear all black. I mean, this movie is not subtle.
The mixture of sort of Central Asian steppe stuff and kind of pan-Islamic Turkish-influenced costume is cool. Here is the Sultan arriving:
There are also high levels of horse-thieving, excuse me, raiding, and fools getting knocked the f out with big old clubs.
Our heroes and their ever-increasing band of merry men and women have a run-in with some soldiers led by Borybai, the standard-issue gruff veteran, who takes a liking to them. Simple farmboy whatsisname has simple ambitions:
They go to visit the bigwig they offended before, who has his minion sing them a folk song with an insulting subtext. Sartai and Taimas are pissed off and leave, but kindly scholar Iliyas joins them. Basically, so far we’ve had about half an hour of getting-the-band-together sequence, which is fair enough. I can’t really tell the heroes apart, other than that they’re the Leader, the Angry One, the Average Joe, the Gruff One, the Smart One and the Girl.
There is a meeting of elders, who have great robes and hats.
Some advocate war, some peace. You know how it be. There is much talk about unifying behind the Sultan, Abul Kair Mukhamed. The council decides on war; Borybai is among the army. Meanwhile, the rest of our heroes are hanging out in the bazaar, gathering information for an upcoming raid.Some dudes are being taken away as slaves, but Sartai sneaks them a couple of shivs, because the Dzungars are the worst caravan guards ever.
There is a big raid on the slave caravan, which is pretty badass. Single combat between our hero and Ayur, a Named Villain, then the customary great big fight, dramatic club murderings, slave riot, the whole bit. The landscapes in this film are pretty great. As is traditional, the sadistic overseer gets choked out with a set of slave manacles. Cracks in the Sartai-Taimas alliance are appearing.
It looks like the Kazakhs write in Arabic script (or similar) and the Dzungars in Chinese. They also seem to be Buddhists? Not sure about that one, but there are some Buddha-looking idols in evidence. There’s a surprisingly sensitive scene between the possibly-Quisling Kazakh bigwig and the main Dzungar leader guy. Bigwig’s beautiful daughter sings a song and gets romanced by Sartai. Sartai’s dudes infiltrate an enemy fort and blow up its store of gunpowder in case you forgot that all this stuff with knights and swords is going on in the 18th century.
The action scenes in this are nicely varied, but I can’t be bothered with this minute-by-minute liveblogging thing. Let’s kick it up a notch. A bunch of other stuff happens. Full of rage and jealousy, Taimas shoots Sartai, who has a near-death experience. Taimas tells everyone the Dzungars got ‘im. Khorlan and Nazar are heartbroken. But in fact Sartai is not dead — in a surprising face turn, Bigwig finds him and there is some pretty gruesome surgery in a yurt by lamplight action (Bigwig being, as we have all figured out except Taimas, not such a bad guy really).
Zere, the love interest, brings Sartai some milk. Interestingly, she is accompanied everywhere by another girl, presumably for reasons of Islamic propriety? Bigwig clues Sartai in on the impending war and asks him to join the army rather than being a bandit. Sartai demurs. Everything you might expect is happening. There are some cool shots of Bigwig’s village migrating. The upcoming battle is on everyone’s mind. A series of incidents remind us that Shit Just Got Real. Some people die. There are Heroic Sacrifices. In fact, characters die like flies, which I confess I wasn’t expecting.
The final battle scene is pretty great. We cut between scenes of the carnage and chaos of the battle itself — Our Hero having turned up with his ragtag band of partisans at the critical moment — and shots of the Kazakh elders watching the battle from their vantage point, from which it appears to be nothing but a milling mass of horses and a huge fuckoff cloud of dust. Which, I suspect, is pretty much what a huge cavalry battle looks like from any distance, but not quite what I expected to see in this film. So points there. Every character who has appeared once or twice gets to have a little moment, and there are a few moments where I suspect I would know who these guys are if I were from Kazakhstan. At one point, someone shows up to say that Tomor Batyr is dead, a character I had literally never heard of until that point.
The guy playing the Dzungar general is working it in this scene; he is amazing. And the actual resolution of the battle is an image I don’t think I’ve ever seen before, which is not something you can often say for the historical battle epic genre.
So what can I say about Myn Bala? I’ve spoken before about the habit of taking blandly patriotic national epics — Army of Valhalla is another good example, or whatever that one with the bear was — and repackaging them for the post-Kingdom of Heaven crowd. I suppose this is one of those films, but it’s a pretty good example of the genre. In a way, it’s basically what Sign of the Pagan and its ilk would be in their evolved forms — still a glurgefest, but a glurgefest with modern production values and furious action and so on. It is a pretty enjoyable way to pass a couple of hours.
I confess that there’s something a little creepy about watching this kind of patriotic boosterism in a movie from a state-run film company in a country that’s had the same president for 23 years. See also: the entire Chinese historical epic genre.
Historical-accuracy-wise, the only sources I could find on the collapse of the Dzungar Khanate paint a complex picture of pressure from outside sources leading to absorption by China rather than a story of plucky, innocent youths rebelling against their brutal overlords, which I’m sure is an oversight.
Probably no more than 50% of the bad guy cast is super greasy.