Commemorating a rare female leader from a time and place where women were mostly regarded as chattel, the sweeping patriotic epic “Kurmanjan Datka Queen of the Mountains” spans the long life (1811-1907) of a heroine who put the personal good of her people before her private hopes. With its breathtaking landscapes, dazzling cinematography, bloody battles and unique cultural traditions, Sadyk Sher-Niyaz’s directing debut provides a fetching piece of exotica for festival audiences. Still, the paper-thin characterizations and lack of a relatable emotional hook will make it tough for Kyrgyzstan’s foreign-language Oscar submission to score theatrical distribution in the West.
“Kurmanjan” is being touted as both the most expensive film to be made in Kyrgyzstan (with a budget of $1.5 million) and the country’s highest-grossing local production. It premiered there in late August and is still in theaters.
The introductory text under the opening credits aims to provide a context for the narrative, but a bit more background would be helpful for foreign viewers. Basically, in 1816, when the story begins, Central Asia consists of some 40 frequently warring tribes. Kurmanjan and her family are nomads in the Alai mountains, an area covering parts of modern-day Uzbekistan and southern Kyrgyzstan, governed by the Kokand Khanate.
The screenplay by Sher-Niyaz, Bakytbek Turdubaev and Kyrgyz culture minister Sultan Raev takes an “important moments” approach to Kurmanjan’s life, requiring the casting of four different actresses. Unfortunately, the result plays like an illustration of her Wikipedia entry rather than providing any psychological insight into her feelings, with one exception at the end. Moreover, the other characters are so thinly drawn that they fail to make much of an impression.
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When Kurmanjan is 5 years old, a blind seer prophesies that she will be worth 10 sons and “our country will need her.” At 18 (played by the vivacious Elina Abai Kyzy), she scandalizes her community by leaving her arranged marriage, apparently without ever consummating the union. But she redeems her family’s honor when she marries Alymbek (Aziz Muradilaev), a feudal lord who rules over the affairs of the clans in the Alai.
Alymbek, who holds the title of “datka” (meaning something like “general”), dreams of unifying the 40 tribes to form a stronger force, capable of resisting outside invaders. But intrigues in the Kokand Khanate lead to his murder. After Kurmanjan inspires the Alai to victory over Kokand, the Emir of Bukhara (Ashyr Chokubaev) gives her the title of data and, in a long swordplay interlude, orchestrates vengeance against the man who executed her husband.
After a big jump forward in time, unmarked by any friendly calendar graphic, the Imperial Russian Army plans to subordinate Central Asia in order to access colonial India. The Kokand Khanate lies directly in its path. While the Kokand clans fight furiously, they don’t stand a chance against the Russian cannons.
The Alai highlanders, ruled by the middle-aged Kurmanjan (now played by Nasira Mambetova), resist for two years, but then she negotiates a peace of sorts. In return for Alai accepting the czarist rule, the Russians vow not to interfere with the lives and religion of the native peoples.
Russian Gen. Skobelev (Aleksandr Golubkov) admires the courage of the Kyrgyz warriors and their devotion to their motherland; he also respects the wisdom and restraint of Kurmanjan Datka. Unfortunately, his successor, Gen. Shvyikovskiy (Vasily Polzunov), an alcoholic racist, is determined to crush the natives he considers beneath him with the full power of the law. When Kurmajan’s favorite son, Kamchybek (Adilet Usubaliev), is captured by the Russians, accused of murdering their troops and condemned to hang, she must decide whether to rescue him or sacrifice his life in order to preserve relations with Moscow and the lives of her people.
A former government official, helmer Sher-Niyaz took almost two years to film his epic. Nearly 10,000 people participated in the production, including a team of remarkable stunt riders from across Central Asia and a tiger from the Moscow zoo who reps Kurmanjan’s fierce spirit. Some of the cultural traditions depicted will remain opaque to outsiders, but wherever suitable, Sher-Niyaz injects lively examples of traditional Krygyz music, sports and entertainment.
Spectacular production design by Zhamal Kozhakmetov and Abylkasym Ismailov and colorful folkloric costumes by Inara Abdieva keep the pic easy on the eyes. The lush score by Didier Bakyt Alisherov and Murzali Zheenaliyev is occasionally supplemented with the ethno-folk stylings of Kyrgyz musicians. Meanwhile, photographs of Kurmanjan and the Alai people taken by former Russian army general Baron C.G. Mannerheim in 1906, while on an expedition in Central Asia, provide a real treat under the end credits.