ASIAN FILM - Review
09:00 - 27th July 2013, by David West

Warriors Of The Steppe - Myn Bala

In the early 1700s, the hordes of the Dzungar tribes invade Kazakhstan, slaughtering anyone unlucky enough to be in their path, including woman and children. Sartai is a young Kazakh whose parents are slain by the invaders as they drive the Kazakhs from the 'steppe' that they used to call home. Seven years later, Sartai lives in the mountains with a small band of survivors including his best friends Taimas and Korlan. Against the wishes of the clan elder Nazar, Sartai and his pals conduct raids on the Dzungars in the steppe, but they know they will never be able to free their homeland unless the numerous khans and sultans who govern the Kazakh tribes can unite their forces against the Dzungar hordes.

Warriors Of The Steppe - Myn Bala was produced to mark the 20th anniversary of Kazakhstan's independence from the Soviet Union, and was a smash hit at home. Directed by Akan Satayev, the story is a chest-thumping, patriotic celebration of the Myn Bala, a group of teenage Kazakh warriors who resisted the Dzungar occupation. The film has been compared to Braveheart, but it plays out more like an 18th century version of Red Dawn, as the bold teenagers fight to free their beloved homeland.

Asylkhan Tolepov heads the cast as Sartai, and carries the film on his youthful shoulders. Ayan Utepbergenov has one of the most interesting roles as Taimas, who becomes increasingly jealous as Sartai's fame grows thanks to his successful and increasingly daring attacks on the Dzungars. Kuralay Anarbekova is excellent as Korlan who proves that the Kazakh girls are just as tough, scrappy and fearless as the boys.

Romance comes in the form of Zere, played by Aliya Telebarisova, who captures Sartai's heart. Unfortunately, she's the daughter of a khan trying to get along with the invaders, so Sartai rubs heads with her family even as he tries to woo Zere.

The movie looks amazing, thanks in part to the stunning natural scenery of the steppe, beautifully captured by cinematographer Khasan Kydyraliyev. Similarly, the Kazakh costumes are wonderful, particularly the finery of the khans' robes and Zere's pretty outfits. The Dzungars, like movie villains throughout the world, dress head-to-toe in black. Therein lies one of the movie's weaker elements in that the script fails to create a memorable antagonist for Sartai. The Dzungars are a largely indistinct bunch of brutes without much to separate one from another. The most interesting of them is the tribal leader Zhonon, but he is just one of a succession of opponents introduced to challenge Sartai and his warriors.

The battle scenes are generally excellent, often taking place at high speed on horseback as arrows fly through the air. The clashes grow in scale as the story builds up towards the Battle of Anyrakay in 1729, which is a landmark in Kazakh history. The final showdown is ambitiously staged, but would have greater impact with stronger sound design and a more rousing score to accompany the heroics.

Akan Satayev's epic adventure transcends its nationalist origins with a highly accessible story. Who knew Kazakhstan cinema would be this entertaining?
SCORE: 3.5/5
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