Nomad (The Warrior) (2007): Kazakhstan’s Entry for Best Foreign Language Film Oscar

Reviewed by Tim Grierson

An old-fashioned epic action spectacle, Nomad” (aka “The Warrior), Kazakhstan’s official entry for this years Best Foreign Language Oscar, boasts large battle scenes with real extras rather than CGI effects. The movie is such a square and earnest piece of entertainment that nostalgic viewers may choose to disregard the stiff characterizations and clich script and praise “Nomad” as the sort of work they dont make anymore. The rest of us, however, may have difficulty not rolling our eyes at the whole affair.

Nomad opens in early-18th century Kazakhstan as the invading Jungar army seeks to conquer the land and end its era of peace and tranquility. Aware of the Jungar threat, Kazak soldier Oraz (Jason Scott Lee) receives a holy sign that a newborn child will one day unite the bickering Kazak tribes and overthrow the foreign menace. Catching wind of this prophecy, the Jungars seek out the chosen one to assassinate him. Though the invaders manage to slay the childs entire caravan, Oraz rescues the boy, named Mansur. Taking him into hiding, he trains him in both combat and Kazak tradition.

Cut to the mature Mansur (now played by Kuno Becker) as a fierce fighter. He and Erali (Jay Hernandez), his friend and fellow warrior, are as close as brothers, so naturally the pretty girl (Ayanat Yesmagambetova) they both secretly love jeopardize their bond. The romantic triangle and the fate of the Kazak people conveniently dovetail when the Jungars make their final push to wipe out the Kazaks.

It’s impossible to establish authorial responsibility since the film is co-directed by the Czech filmmaker Ivan Passer and the Russian Sergei Bodrov, with some additional local directing assistance from Talgat Temenov). A $40-million venture may not be much for an American or European production, but Kazakhstan (best-known as the birthplace of Sacha Baron Cohen’s fictional character Borat) is a relatively new player in this arena.

Despite flaws, Nomad does have an agreeable cornball sweetness to it. While most blockbuster film franchises rely on massive budgets and cutting-edge special effects to tell rather simple stories about unassuming young men called by destiny to vanquish evil, “Nomad” offers a comforting throwback, an action-adventure using real locations and, other than some slow-motion shots, little by way of effects for narrative purposes.

“Nomad” is lavish with beautiful Kazak scenery, period costumes, and endless sword fights, but its impossible to shake the feeling that weve seen most of this fare before. Rustam Ibragimbekovs screenplay, although based somewhat on Kazak history, derives its suspense from purloined segments from several successful epic/historical films of the past. From the obligatory training-young-Mansur montage to the inevitable Mansur-Erali showdown to the storming-the-castle finale, the movie is a pale imitation, an overly faithful retread of many other–and better–pictures of this kind.

Since Nomad aspires to the elemental simplicity of myth, evident in the sober voiceover, one would expect the acting to be stoic and understated. And though none of the performances could be described as showy, no actor in the cast makes much of an impression either.

As the man destined to lead others, Beckers Mansur bears an unflattering similarity to Hayden Christensen in his equally vapid portrayal of Anakin Skywalker from the Star Wars prequels. Becker handles a sword well and rides horses convincingly, but when called upon to seem wise or brave, he resorts to squinting or intense staring. The other performers, including Hernandez and Yesmagambetova, come across as stiff, burdened with lines that contain fortune-cookie platitudes about Honor or Courage or Love.

Ultimately, a film operating on such a potentially grand canvas needs an equally grand vision behind the camera. And while the directors give the action sequences a robust, busy texture and the serious speeches the right amount of gravity, we yearn for an auteur with the vision of a Ridley Scott or a Zhang Yimou, pushing into new directions rather than aping the classics.

Some critics have sniffed at the historical liberties taken in Scott’s Gladiator or the overt theatricality of Yimou’s House of Flying Daggers, but the audacity of these pictures reinvented a moribund genre, lending it a more contemporary feel and relevance. Perhaps such relevance is too much to ask of a little movie that represents a huge step forward for a nascent filmmaking nation. But lets hope that the next Kazakhstan film trying for epic style, it doesnt just stop at the costumes and the crane shots. Soulless American productions already have those commodities in spades. What we long for are some captivating human beings on screen, who can tell us a little about ourselves, no matter the language spoken.

Running time: 112 minutes

US distribution: The Weinstein Company
Directors: Sergei Bodrov, Ivan Passer, Talgat Temenov
Production companies: Kazakhfilm, Wild Bunch, Irbus, True Stories Productions
Executive producers: Milos Forman, Sergey Azimov, Serik Zhybandykov.
Producers: Pavel Douvidzon, Ram Bergman, Rustam Ibragimbekov
Screenplay: Rustam Ibragimbekov
Cinematography: Dan Laustsen, Ueli Steiger
Editor: Rick Shaine
Production design: Miljen Kreka Kljakovic
Music: Carlo Siliotto

Cast

Mansur (Kuno Becker)
Erali (Jay Hernandez)
Gaukhar (Ayana Yesmagambetova)
Oraz (Jason Scott Lee)
Hocha (Dilnaz Akhmadieva)
Ragbat (Azis Beyshinaliev)
Sharish (Mark Dacascos)
Shangrek (Archie Kao)
Abulkhair (Ron Yuan)
Galdan Ceren (Doskhan Zholzhaksynov)
Barak (Erik Zholzhaksynov)