19 June 2019

Kóshpendiler ten years on, and Jaýjúrek myń bala

Mansur (Kuno Becker) and Eraly (Jay Hernandez) in Kóshpendiler

I started this blog, then called Matt’s Existential Musings, ten years ago to the day in 2009. The blog was set up to be a Peace Corps journal. Peace Corps didn’t quite work out. Blogging, it turns out, did – though the result turned out far, far differently from what I expected. I began it with an entirely-insufficient review of a 2005 movie called Nomad (or Kóshpendiler in Kazakh), starring Jason Scott Lee, Kuno Becker, Jay Hernandez and Ayanat Ksenbai. That I would go back this summer and start reviewing Kazakhstani movies like Baikonur, Kelin, Shal, Ulzhan (another film with Ayanat Ksenbai), Otyrardyń kúıreýi, Tulpan, Kavkazskii plennik (another Bodrov), Shıza (yet another Bodrov), Ya ne vernus’ and Pervyi eshelon, seems more than a bit convenient and coincidental. Please believe me, gentle readers, when I say that it’s serendipity, and I didn’t plan it this way. Even so, going back and taking another look at Kóshpendiler did seem like too good an opportunity to pass up.

Kóshpendiler is a movie in that elusive category that the French call nanar. It can loosely be called a historical epic and it is definitely an action movie – and Sergei Bodrov certainly had a creative vision that is brought in full force onto the screen. It makes enthusiastic and effective use of sweeping landscape cinematography, thundering herds of horses, vast period sets and intricate costume design, and as a result is visually lush and convincing. But the casting choices, the acting direction, and even the writing conspire, in the end, to produce something endearingly terrible instead.

Set during the Kazakh-Dzunghar wars of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, Kóshpendiler centres around the life and career of Abylaı Han – whose given name was Ábilmansur. The voice-over narration from Jason Scott Lee informs us that the Kazakh people are being destroyed and enslaved by the brutal Dzunghars, and that the Kazakh tribes are too disorganised to put up any kind of unified resistance. A prophecy known to Lee’s character, Oraz the Wise, says that a direct male-line descendant of Shyńǵys Han will be born, who is fated to unite the Kazakh tribes and liberate them from the tyranny of the Dzunghars. Unfortunately, this prophecy also becomes known to Galdan Tseren, the ruler of the Dzunghars, who takes repeated steps to kill this child who will bring an end to his dominion. The broad contours of the story of Kóshpendiler will be familiar to anyone with a passing knowledge of heroic mythology throughout the world, from King Arthur to Star Wars. Even so, here’s the standard warning: spoilers ahead.

The hero, Mansur (Kuno Becker), is saved at his birth from being killed by Galdan’s Herodic paranoia at the hands of his best warrior Sharysh (Mark Dacascos) and his band of Dzunghars. However, Sharysh manages to kill Mansur’s mother, the wife of Sultan Válı. Oraz, who saved Mansur, brings him to his grieving father, who is glad that at least his son was saved and agrees to grant one thing to Oraz. Oraz asks him for the right to raise Mansur – a request that Válı is loath to give, but does so both to keep his word and to assure Mansur’s safety from the wrath of Galdan. Oraz raises Mansur alongside a group of young boys from every Kazakh tribe. He teaches them to fight together without distinction between their clans or families, teaches them the history of Shyńǵys Han and the origins of the Kazakh people, and even references the old yarn about a bundle of arrows being harder to break than each arrow individually. But Mansur is closest to Eraly (Jay Hernandez), whose fighting ability matches his.

Sultan Válı pays a surprise visit to Oraz and his training school for nomadic boys, who all line up dutifully to greet him. When he comes to Mansur and Eraly, he wonders why they don’t give him their tribal names, and Eraly answers him: ‘We know our tribes, but Mansur and I call ourselves Kazakhs.’ From this Válı is able to guess that one of them is his son, but Oraz isn’t telling him which. Growing up alongside Mansur and Eraly is the lovely Gauhar (Ayanat Ksenbai) who seems to take an early interest in Mansur. At first, to all appearances, Mansur is more interested in her colt Moonchild (Kazakh priorities!), but soon learns to appreciate her. Unfortunately, he learns that Eraly is also in love with her, and thus refrains – despite Gauhar’s open encouragement – from chasing her so as not to strain their friendship.

We soon learn why Oraz put together this training school. The Kazakh khans and sultans, called together to answer the Dzunghar threat, spend their time swaggering, posturing, loudly bowing to no one, and generally refusing to work together. Meanwhile, Galdan somehow learns that Mansur is alive and again sends Sharysh to attack the city of Túrkistan. Sultan Válı sends the women and children, including Gauhar, out of the city to a safe hiding-place, but Gauhar rides back – followed by her brother Qasım – to be with Mansur and both are thus easily caught by Sharysh in ambush. A leering Sharysh, threatening her brother with a torturous death if she doesn’t comply, sends her back to Dzungharia to become his tenth wife.

Sharysh besieges Túrkistan, but for some reason agrees to a duel with a single warrior of the Kazakhs’ choice. Eraly volunteers, but Oraz chooses Mansur to go instead – telling Mansur that Sharysh killed his mother. As Sultan Válı watches from the walls, Mansur rides out and fights Sharysh on horseback, handily lopping off his head with the help of some incredible horsemanship – and then Válı recognises his own son. Eraly is initially joyful, but becomes jealous of Mansur’s preferential treatment by Oraz and Sultan Válı. Eraly learns that Gauhar has been captured, and rides off alone to her rescue without telling anyone except Oraz. This seems to be a theme. Mansur rides out after him – first stopping at the tree of Shyńǵys to pray – and is easily caught by the Dzunghars.

He is brought before Galdan and subjected to various tests clearly meant to kill him, although in his captivity he befriends Galdan’s son and unwittingly enchants Galdan’s daughter, whose advances he refuses. The tests include having to ride through two lines of archers shooting at him, and finally having to duel Eraly – though both of their faces are hidden from each other by chainmail veils. Mansur embraces a dying Eraly as he is told by Galdan that he’s free to leave the next morning. In secret, though, Galdan plans to have Mansur’s drink poisoned. The captive Gauhar sees this, and risks her life to steal Moonchild and rescue Mansur from the Dzunghars.

Galdan’s enraged Dzunghars besiege Túrkistan again in force, and this time they mean business: they beat up and quarter the Kazakh herald. Mansur sends out messengers to the other Kazakh tribal leaders, hoping that they will answer and ride to Túrkistan’s defence in time. Much of the rest of the movie, which sports some impressive battle choreography, horsemanship and pyrotechnics, narrates the battle for Túrkistan, which is saved even as the reinforcements arrive. The Dzunghar strength is broken, and Galdan’s son is captured. Mansur, however, shows mercy and sends Galdan’s son back to him with a model globe sporting the new realm of ‘Kazakhia’ and a message: Don’t mess with the Kazakhs.

End spoilers.

Again, Kóshpendiler has all the technical prowess of a modern action blockbuster, but the acting and writing are both delightful B-movie hams, with the Kazakh characters in particular seeming to routinely indulge in frankly boneheaded acts of bravery (though Sharysh isn’t exempt). From a historical perspective this is more than a bit unfortunate, because the historical Abylaı Han wasn’t just a brave batyr – he was also a preternaturally deft statesman and a wily military strategist, and deserves a reputation like that of China’s Zhuge Liang. Kuno Becker and Jay Hernandez in particular throw themselves into their rôles with a bit too much gusto. But the movie is telling in certain of its ideological aspects. The Kazakh nationalist narrative which the film gives voice to is multifaceted. The Kazakhs claim descent from Shyńǵys Han, the Mongol leader – and yet their enemies the Dzunghars lay perhaps an even better claim to the same descent. This being the case, the Kazakhs are shown by the movie to be inheritors of the spirit of the steppe: they are brave, honest, just, merciful to captives and hospitable to guests. Galdan, Sharysh and the Dzunghars, on the other hand, are shown in a different light. Galdan is an unmistakeable Herod figure, willing to slaughter children to secure his own power. He is willing to use poison to kill his captive Mansur. He brutally murders a Kazakh envoy. He shouts orders at his troops safely from the sidelines rather than fighting beside them. This contrasts starkly with Mansur, who shows mercy to Galdan’s young son and is willing to fight alongside and suffer in solidarity with his people.

There is a religious ‘us-them’ dichotomy that is drawn between Kazakh and Dzunghar. Kazakhs all pray openly and devoutly to God, like good Muslims. They all bow toward Mecca and they all stand together as equals – even though, without Mansur, they also squabble and boast and fracture when the time comes to take action. The religion of the Dzunghars is portrayed far less sympathetically. Galdan is attended by an obnoxious, obsequious and theatrically-toadying shaman whom the khan clearly despises. This runs alongside an æsthetic ‘us-them’ dichotomy that shows Kazakhs as embodying the noble qualities of both East and West, both Islam and the steppe tradition. Dzunghars, by contrast, are a steppe people who have gone soft and ‘forgotten their roots’. Galdan luxuriates in golden robes and lounges on a Chinese-looking throne beneath a silken canopy. The Kazakh Gauhar is a rugged steppe shieldmaiden who can ride and fight better than many Dzunghar men; but Galdan’s daughter is pampered, made-up, dressed in Chinese silks, and is easily seduced by the virile Mansur.

As a bit of national mythos-building, Kóshpendiler is both instructive and entertaining. All the same, given the lukewarm reception Kóshpendiler received overseas, it’s understandable that for the twentieth anniversary of Kazakhstani independence, the national film company Kazakhfilm Studios would want to revisit their earlier work. The result was 2011’s Jaýjúrek myń bala, directed by Aqan Sataev.

Kazakh warriors riding to battle in Jaýjúrek myń bala

It would be something of a waste of time and blog space to discuss the plot of Jaýjúrek myń bala, because it’s essentially the same as that of Kóshpendiler. The most significant difference is that instead of focussing on the big-name political figures like Abylaı Han (Dasten Shakırov) and Ábilqaıyr Han (Berik Aıtjanov), it focuses instead on the life and travails of a young orphan turned anti-Dzunghar resistance fighter named Sartaı (Asylhan Tolepov) and his band of fellow-orphans and friends who demonstrate bravery and self-sacrifice as they seek to drive the marauding, enslaving Dzunghars out of their homeland. Sartaı is similarly orphaned by the Dzunghars and seeks revenge on the Dzunghar commander who murdered his family. He and his best friend Taımas (Aıan Ýtepbergen) demonstrate the same strained foster-brother relationship that Mansur and Eraly do in Kóshpendiler – but perhaps an even better analogy would be an even further callback in Kazakhstani cinema: the psychologically-dense rivalry between Uzarov and Monetkin in Pervyi echelon. Sartaı even has a love interest in Zere (Alııa Anýarbek) who displays a similar lack of regard for her personal safety.

Let me state first off that, on practically every single objective and technical level, Jaýjúrek myń bala is a far better movie than Kóshpendiler. It may lack the sweeping grand-historical scope, swagger and colourful costume-drama flair of the 2005 movie, but it more than makes up for that in attention to period-specific detail, grit and acting chops. It works far better as a ‘serious’ war drama on less than half the budget. Yet, at the same time, in this driven pursuit of making an efficient, muscular action blockbuster in the mould of Braveheart or Gettysburg, more than a bit of the B-movie charm of the original Kóshpendiler got lost.

One noteworthy thing is that Jaýjúrek myń bala seems to actually double down on the ideological portrayal of the Dzunghars as a foil for the Kazakh national mythos and identity-building. The ancestral touchstone for Kazakh identity here is no longer the Mongol Shyńǵys Han, but instead the Turkic epic hero Alpamıs who also features in Bashkir oral legend, the tales of whom Sartaı’s elderly uncle Nazar (Tlektes Meıramov) tells to the young people around the campfire. The Kazakhs in Jaýjúrek myń bala are again shown to be both the true guardians of steppe chivalry, honesty and hospitality, and faithful Muslims who trust in God’s justice and providence. The Dzunghars are shown to be practically without redeeming qualities. The uniforms of the Dzunghars are black from head to toe. The Dzunghars shoot Kazakh children for sport; round up villages and slaughter the inhabitants; take Kazakh slaves whom they treat with callous casual brutality. Muslim piety is also made a more explicit touchstone of the ‘us-them’ distinction. Dzunghar leaders are also shown to be idolaters who bow before statues of the Buddha, get drunk on strong liquor and horse-whip beggars who ask them for alms. Despite all of this, ironically, the storytelling – which is more self-awarely gæopolitical – downplays the Sinification of the Dzunghars. The Kazakh leaders acknowledge that the Dzunghars are fighting a two-front war against both them and the Qing Dynasty.

When it comes to recommendations, I would actually highly recommend both Kazakhfilm productions – but for vastly different reasons despite their near-identical storylines and shared historical subject matter. Jaýjúrek myń bala is a proficient action movie in its own right and should appeal broadly to American audiences who love well-shot, well-acted war films. But the inadvertent comedy delivered by the overacting and ‘taco kung fu’ of Kóshpendiler give it an earnest nanar-ific charm that Jaýjúrek myń bala lacks, while it still carries the high production values and lavish costumes and technical effects of most Western blockbusters.

So, with that, I think I’ve wished a fitting happy tenth birthday to the blog! It’s been a long and bumpy ride from Providence across the steppes of Kazakhstan through Inner Mongolia and Henan to the west side of the Mississippi River – and I can’t say that I don’t have any regrets. But this online journal of mine is not one of them. Zdorovy!

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