You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Film Review: ‘Heavenly Nomadic’

Mirlan Abdykalykov makes a visually majestic debut with this drama about a horse-herding family in Kyrgyzstan.

Tabyldy Aktanov, Jibek Baktybekova, Taalaikan Abazova, Anar Nazarkulova, Jenish Kangeldiev, Myrza Subanbekov.

Tradition and modernity gently clash as the cycle of life plays out for a horse-herding family living amid remote mountains in “Heavenly Nomadic,” the feature debut of Mirlan Abdykalykov, son of Kyrgyzstan’s best-known auteur, Aktan Arym Kubat (who helmed “The Swing,” “The Adopted Son” and “The Chimp” under his Russian name, Aktan Abdykalykov). Although this sweet-natured drama may seem simplistic compared to similar-themed Central Asian titles such as Sergei Dvortsevoy’s “Tulpan,” its visually majestic landscapes and ethnographic detail will entice fest programmers and niche arthouse distribs on the lookout for accessible exotica. The film won a nod from the Fedeora critics at Karlovy Vary.

Three generations of a nomadic family share a cozy yurt pitched on grassy plain surrounded by high peaks. Elderly herdsman Tabyldy (Tabyldy Aktanov) is the head of the household; his wife, Karachach (Anar Nazarkulova), does the cooking and looks after their cute-as-a-button 7-year-old granddaughter, Umsunai (Jibek Baktybekova), while their daughter-in-law, Shaiyr (Taalaikan Abazova), takes their herd to graze and performs the other heavy manual labor it takes to keep them in the horse-milk trade.

The absence of other men in the family is keenly felt. Shaiyr’s son Ulan (Myrza Subanbekov) is studying architecture in the city, much to Karachach’s disapproval, and her husband died some years ago, drowned in a mountain river while trying to save a foal. Tabyldy still grieves that he could not recover his son’s body for a proper burial and spends hours dragging stones from the river to build a memorial.

But another male does come into the picture: Ermek (Jenish Kangeldiev), a middle-aged meteorologist whose sudden liking for horse milk and friendship with Tabyldy arouses Karachach’s suspicion. Although Shaiyr is no longer young, she is still attractive, and Karachach fears that their daughter-in-law could leave them.

While the action is largely visual, helmer Abdykalykov provides exposition through dialogue scenes (the script was co-written by Kubat and Ernest Abdyjaparov) as the characters go about their business in the gorgeous landscape. Over dinner one night, Umsunai asks about the chirping call of the sutak (the bird that gives the film its original-language title) and why Abdykalykov responds to its call by putting out a dish of horse’s milk and asking for forgiveness. Karachach recounts a legend about the bird, which involves a wife suspected of sin just because she talked to another man. Shaiyr understands her insinuation. Umsunai, however, is more taken with her grandfather’s tale about a hunter turned into a hawk, who comes back to watch over his family.

The seasons change and Ulan returns for a visit. Calling him “our support and hope for the future,” Tabyldy presents him with a young stallion to tame, cuing a display of traditional Kyrgyz horse-handling skills. Although he can still ride and rope, it seems unlikely that Ulan will want to return to his family’s herding lifestyle. Meanwhile, city life as repped by bulldozers and building equipment is slowly but inevitably closing in on the nomads’ open landscape.

A film industry vet since the age of 8 as the star of three films directed by his father, helmer Abdykalykov draws touching performances from his actors. Perhaps the most poignant scenes show Tabyldy’s portent-filled dream and how he describes it to his wife the next day. The solid craft package fully exploits the impressive scenery.

Popular on Variety

Film Review: 'Heavenly Nomadic'

Reviewed at Karlovy Vary Film Festival (competing), July 3, 2015. Running time: 81 MIN. (Original title: “Sutak”)

Production: (Kyrgyzstan) An Aitysh Film Studio production co-produced by Oy Art Film Producing Co. Produced by Sadyk Sher-Niyaz. Co-producer, Altynai Koichumanova.

Crew: Directed by Mirlan Abdykalykov. Screenplay, Aktan Arym Kubat, Ernest Abdyjaparov. Camera (color, HD, widescreen), Talant Akynbekov; editor, Eldiar Madakim; music, Murzali Jenbaev; production designer, Adis Seitaliev; sound designers, Murat Ajiev, Bakyt Niyazaliev.

With: Tabyldy Aktanov, Jibek Baktybekova, Taalaikan Abazova, Anar Nazarkulova, Jenish Kangeldiev, Myrza Subanbekov.

More Film

  • Zeroville

    Film Review: 'Zeroville'

    I’m tired of hearing how some novels are “impossible to adapt.” Balderdash! Just because some books don’t lend themselves to being translated from page to screen doesn’t mean that the attempt ought not to be made. Just ask James Franco, who’s shown a speed freak’s determination to tackle some of the unlikeliest literary adaptations of [...]

  • Red Penguins review

    Toronto Film Review: 'Red Penguins'

    “Red Penguins” is a cautionary tale with particular resonance in the context of our current bizarre intertwining with Russia, the country that interfered in the last U.S. presidential election and is led by the POTUS’ apparent BFF. This wild tale of attempted transnational commerce just after the demise of the USSR in the 1990s chronicles [...]

  • Danny Ramirez'On My Block' TV show

    Danny Ramirez to Star in Film Adaptation of 'Root Letter' Video Game (EXCLUSIVE)

    An English-language film adaptation of Japanese video game “Root Letter,” starring Danny Ramirez, is in production in the U.S. through Akatsuki Entertainment USA. Besides Ramirez (“Top Gun: Maverick,” “Assassination Nation”), the film stars Keana Marie (“Huge in France,” “Live in Pieces”) and Lydia Hearst (“The Haunting of Sharon Tate,” “Z Nation”). With a screenplay by [...]

  • Screen writer Beau WillimonMary Queen of

    Beau Willimon Re-Elected as President of Writers Guild of America East

    Beau Willimon, the playwright and showrunner who launched Netflix’s “House of Cards,” has been re-elected without opposition to a two-year term as president of the Writers Guild of America East. Willimon also ran unopposed in 2017 to succeed Michael Winship. Kathy McGee was elected to the vice president slot over Phil Pilato. Secretary-treasurer Bob Schneider [...]

  • Running With the Devil review

    Film Review: 'Running With the Devil'

    A retired Navy SEAL who for a time was a military advisor on the Colombian drug trade, Jason Cabell conceived his first solo feature as writer-director to tell the story of that particular commerce “from the point of view of the drugs.” The result isn’t exactly a docudrama indictment like “Traffic,” a thriller a la [...]

  • Sweetheart review

    Blumhouse's 'Sweetheart' Sets October Digital Release From Universal (EXCLUSIVE)

    After making waves at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, the Blumhouse project “Sweetheart” is set to hit digital and on demand platforms. Universal Pictures Home Entertainment will offer the film on all major streaming hubs and paid video on demand come Oct. 22, unleashing the creature feature which stars Kiersey Clemons in a harrowing tale [...]

  • Bob OdenkirkAFI Awards Luncheon, Los Angeles,

    Bob Odenkirk to Star in Thriller 'Nobody'

    “Better Call Saul” star Bob Odenkirk has signed on to star in the thriller “Nobody.” The Universal pic follows Hutch Mansell (Odenkirk), a suburban dad, overlooked husband, nothing neighbor — a “nobody.” When two thieves break into his home one night, Hutch’s unknown long-simmering rage is ignited and propels him on a brutal path that [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content