The guilt-ridden wrong-doer who tries to make amends to a dead man’s woman and then falls for her may be an oft-reworked movie set-up, but “Schizo” manages to keep it fresh. Sun-seared rural Kazak’s illegal boxing circuit is the setting for this assured first feature by helmer Gulshad Omarova, co-writer of Sergei Bodrov Jr.’s “Sisters,” here working with Russian helmer Sergei Bodrov Sr. (“Prisoner of the Mountains”) wearing the producer’s hat. Offering further evidence of contempo vibrancy in Kazak filmmaking, pic should go a few rounds at B.O. at home, and could punch above its weight on fest circuit.
According to press notes, pic is set in the early 1990s although timeless story has hardly any period markers. Fifteen-year-old Mustafa (Olzhas Nusuppaev) has been nicknamed “Schizo” by schoolmates because of unspecified behavioral problems. His mother Kulyash (Gulnara Eralibeva) is saving up to get medical treatment for him in distant big city Almaty.
She agrees to let him quit school to go work for her slippery Russian b.f. Sakura (Eduard Tabischev), a small-time hood who recruits unemployed men for brutal bare-knuckle fights run by local Mr. Big, Almaz (Zhurabek Musbaev).
Schizo recruits Ali (Gairatzhan Tokhgibakiev), a Kazak not much older than he is. But Ali gets pounded to death in the ring by a bruiser twice his size, an action sequence shot with real flair in a flurry of handheld shots. Before he expires, Ali asks Schizo to take all the money in his pocket to Zinka (Sissy Spacek-lookalike Olga Landina), mother of his 5-year-old son Sanzhik (Nurtay Kanagat).
Naturally, Schizo lies to the pretty Zinka about Ali’s fate and soon starts hanging round her shack, gradually taking the place of the dead man he physically resembles in a plotline reminiscent of films like Pat O’Connor’s “Cal” or even Neil Jordan’s “The Crying Game,” but without the cross-dressing
Although his immediate circle assumes he’s stupid because he’s so tightlipped, Schizo’s implacable face merely disguises a cunning mind. He contrives to win Almaz’s Mercedes in a fight by recruiting his uncle Zhaken (Bazkitbek Baimuzhanbetov) — once a legendary scrapper, now making a living stealing dead power line cables — as a ringer for a big fight. After they win, Schizo and Zhaken sell the Mercedes, and Schizo gives his share to Zinka, who sexually initiates him as a reward. By this time, she knows Ali is dead, but with few other prospects around she forgives him and starts to fall for the lovestruck teen.
Last act escalates noir elements and then disappointingly deflates somewhat. A late twist risks losing aud sympathy for protag. Also, too-pat happy-ish ending feels like a crime-sort-of-pays sop to the domestic crowd (who tend to be less judgmental of cinematic criminal behavior), which betrays gritty sensibility of midsection.
Nevertheless, Omarova emerges as a talent to watch with “Schizo,” showing a particular knack for filming bodies in motion. Pleasingly pulpy story fits right in with indigenous, Slavic tradition and current fascination with gangster fare. Meanwhile, Omarova evinces a local’s keen sense of place in collaboration with Talgan Asirankulov’s production design, capturing the scruffy locations used with a painterly eye.
Perfs, by a mix of unknown and experienced thesps, have a consistent naturalism. Lead actor Nusuppaev, with his mop of jet-black hair and cunning eyes, takes a while to warm up on screen but Omarova works with rather than against his limitations, building plot structure around his inscrutability. Comely Landina and sexy Tabischev show more pro sheen and up pic’s eye-candy quotient.
Rest of tech credits also are pro, with Hasanbek Kidiraliev’s lensing dreamily bleached looking, favoring long distance shots and vertiginous high angles that dwarf figures in the ravaged landscape as well as numerous p.o.v. shots.