It took the combined directorial talents of Ivan Passer and Sergei Bodrov to complete this historical epic about the 18th-century attempt to unify the contentious Kazakh tribes into what would become Kazakhstan (no Borat jokes, please), but the result is really little more than an intermittently entertaining Saturday afternoon matinee in period Central Asian drag.
For generations the pastoral existence of the nomadic Kazakhs, those peaceful descendants of the fearsome Genghis Kahn who have inhabited the vast semi-arid territory bordering Russia and China for centuries, has been continually shattered by foreign invasions. The fierce Jungar tribesman of Mongolia are now the latest invaders to benefit from the constant bickering that keeps the heads of the main Kazakh tribes from rising up as a unified force and driving their enemies from Kazakh land. By now many Kazakhs have fled the Jungar horde led by Great Kahn Galdan (Doshkan Zholzhaxynov) during the exodus known as the "Flight of the Bloody Feet," but others remain behind, putting their faith in the prophecy that one day a descendant of Genghis Kahn will emerge to unify his people and free their land. Chief among these true believers is Oraz (Jason Scott Lee), a fighter and master horseman who has been searching far and wide across the Great Steppe in search of this golden child. When he encounters the caravan carrying the wife of a Kazakh sultan and his newborn son, Oraz knows the infant is the future Kazakh leader. Oraz is able to sneak the baby to safety just moments before the brutal Jungar general Sharish (Mark Docascos), who has been sent by Galdan to destroy is future nemesis, and his troops descend on the caravan and slaughter everyone in sight. Oraz takes the infant to its father in the walled medieval city of Turkestan, but instead of handing him over, Oraz asks the sultan for custody. Realizing that his son will be far safer if he were raised in anonymity under the protection of Oraz, the sultan agrees, and the one great hope of the Kazakh people grows to adulthood with his true identity kept hidden from everyone, including himself. He's just one of the many young men whom Oraz is training in the arts of combat and horsemanship in hopes of one day rousting the Jungar foe. Two of these young nomad warriors are particular standouts: Mansur (Kuno Becker) and Erali (Jay Hernandez). They're also best friends who have fallen in love with the same woman, the beautiful Gaukhar (Ayanat Yesmagambetova), but rather than fight for her affections, they've decided to stand as brothers and allow fate to decide their course. Fate intervenes soon enough when the Jungars once again invade and prepare to lay siege to a fortified Turkestan. It's agreed that the future of the city will be decided by a duel between Sharish and either Mansur or Erali, one of whom will step forward and reveal himself as the future Ablai Khan of a united Kazakhstan.
Despite the central Asian locale, the film is largely rooted in the conventions of the American westerns and good old Hollywood Biblical epics like THE TEN COMMANDMENTS, as well as many of their attendant clichés. That's not to say that it isn't at times entertaining (there's a pretty good scene involving a harrowing gauntlet of archers) or that the film doesn't offer some idea of Kazakh history and identity, however watered down. And after BORAT, poor Kazakhstan can use all the help it can get. leave a comment --Ken Fox