Easy on the eye and moving at an easy canter, established Kazak helmer Serik Aprymov’s Central Asian horse opera “The Hunter” reps a striking follow-up to his year 2000 fest traveler “Three Brothers.” Kazakhstan’s spectacular mountain landscapes provide lush background for the not entirely original but very watchable coming-of-age story about a boy learning the tricks of the trade from an older man. Pic’s rugged exoticism and sensuality could give it legs on the fest circuit and help it jump the fence into a few upmarket distributors’ corrals.
Prepubescent Erken (Alibek Zhuasbaev) lives in a village with an unnamed good-time girl (Gulnazid Omarova) with half-dyed hair, who may or may not be his birth mother. A rugged hunter (Dogdurbek Kidiraliev), also unnamed, rides into town for supplies and a bit of nookie from Erken’s mom. After jealous Erken steals the hunter’s rifle for a bout of target practice on the local store, he heads for the hills with the hunter, who pledges to teach him his nomadic way of life.
While roaming, the hunter takes time out to have sex with a young girl atop a moving horse, a feat of sexual athleticism even the “Kama Sutra” couldn’t conceive of, which also makes for one of the pic’s most jaw-dropping sequences.
As Erken and the hunter travel, people continually remark on Erken’s literal coldness, felt in his hands and breath. His gaining of human warmth, tied to a sacrifice at the end, graphs his personal quest in slightly schematic fashion. Meanwhile, the hunter is on a course for a final hand-to-paw showdown with a lone wolf that’s lost its fear of man and is ravaging the local livestock.
Despite the fact that firearms and the mother’s miniskirts establish a modern-day setting, pic also provides a diverting ethnographic portrait of Kazak mountain dwellers’ ancient way of life, one based around herding goats and horses, wearing traditional outfits mostly made from real fur and adhering in animistic religious beliefs. Birds, wolves and the bleakly beautiful verdant steppes, which the camera often lingers on, are the film’s supporting characters. Sanctified but still red in tooth and claw, nature here is reminiscent of its treatment in similarly-set films like Akira Kurosawa’s “Dersu Uzala,” Nikita Mikhalkov’s “Urga” and Zacharias Kunuk’s recent “Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner.”
A filmmaker can’t really go wrong with such photogenic material, but Aprymov, in collaboration with d.p. Hasan Kidiraliev, also brings a painterly eye to the canvas and structures the mythic story with elegant economy. He also gets sturdy perfs from his entirely non-pro cast, particularly from Kidiraliev as the manly hunter, a true cowboy but in an ear-flap hat instead of a Stetson, and Zhuasbaev as the inscrutable Erken.
The rest of the tech package is thoughtfully assembled, especially the haunting, chorale-based score by Kazbek Spanov. For the record, pic’s original title was incorrectly listed as “Okhotnik,” the Russian word for “hunter,” in the Locarno catalog even though the title credit names the movie in Cyrillic letters as “Anshi,” the Kazak word for “hunter.” There was no Russian money invested in the project, and Russian is spoken only for few seconds in a late scene. Pic is otherwise entirely in the Kazak language.