Cumbersome title aside, “The Horse Thieves: Roads of Time” represents a simple story of fathers and sons, kittens and horses, everyday life and banal death on the steppes of rural Kazakhstan. This highly unusual co-production, co-directed by Kazakh filmmaker Yerlan Nurmukhambetov (“Walnut Tree”) and rising Japanese director Lisa Takeba (“The Pinkie,” “Haruko’s Paranormal Laboraory”), feels honest to the point of naïve, marked by a gentle pace, with only the widescreen vistas of dusty red hills backdropped by sharply sculpted white mountains, and a late swerve into Western genre territory, lending this small-scale tale its epic dimensions.
Representing as it does a collaboration that straddles the entire region, it is perhaps a pity that the film itself is not a little more bombastic, as well as a surprise that this hybridization of different cinematic traditions does not yield something more multi-layered. Instead, even given the presence of Samal Yesyamova, Cannes Best Actress winner for 2018’s “Ayka,” “Horse Thieves” is heartfelt but a little too straightforward to feel anything but minor, just like the key in which its sad-eyed drama plays.
The perspective shifts, with an initially irksome lack of discipline, from character to character. But it loosely settles on the boy Olzhas (Madi Minaidarov), the eldest son of tomato-picker Aigal (Yesyamova) and horse trader Ondasyn (Dulyga Akmolda). In this unabashedly patriarchal community, Olzhas’ days are spent, like many a 10-year-old boy’s, avoiding chores set by his mother, roughhousing with his friends and wheedling to be allowed to accompany his dad on trips out to the nearby towns. Ondasyn won’t let him come on his latest foray to a far-off livestock market to sell 20 horses, and it’s perhaps a blessing as on that trip, Ondasyn and his two companions are lured into the wilderness and killed for the horses, their money and the cracked watch that ticks, like the mechanical plot device it is, on Ondasyn’s wrist. The only survivor is the plaintively mewing kitten that Ondasyn had tucked away cutely in his jacket on a whim as a gift for his kids.
For a while, the film follows the grieving but dry-eyed Aigal, as she numbly copes with new widowhood and plans for her future as the sole parent of three. But on the day of the funeral, by strange coincidence, the mysterious Kairat (Japanese actor Moriyama Mirai whose counterintuitive casting lends the character an otherworldly air), a nomadic Kazakh horseman with a shady past, shows up on Aigal’s doorstep. And once their relationship is revealed, the story’s final act is set in motion, tick-tocking, like a certain cracked watch, toward an inevitable showdown.
Even though the narrative lines, untroubled by subtext or subplot, are drawn so straight and true here that it’s easy to foretell precisely how they will converge, the biggest revelation in the home stretch is just how much Nurmukhambetov and Takeba’s storytelling, aided by the taciturn but touching performances from all the principals, has snuck up on you and how much power the film accretes once it moves away from simple ethnography and starts to embrace the more mythic overtones of the classic Western.
In these moments, Aziz Zhambakiev’s subdued yet spectacular widescreen camerawork, which happens upon frames of stark natural beauty casually, never forcing the empty plains and blank skies to be picturesque, feels most in sync with the drama, especially as underlined by Akmaral Zykaeva’s mininamlist score, with its oddly modern, staticky percussion and droning electro basslines. Out here in the sparsely populated Kazakh plains, life is cheap and death — even violent death — is small, unglamorous. But the slow build of “The Horse Thieves” eventually creates something larger than itself, and if it doesn’t ever quite reach the giddy heights of 2019’s other Kazakh charmer “Shyrakshy: Guardian of the Light” or achieve the folkloric resonance that the recent cinema of neighboring Kyrgyzstan deals in so beautifully, still it reminds us that taking meaningless, small events and weaving them into a grander story — perhaps one seen through the quick eyes of an imaginative 10-year-old — is still our best defense against the mountainous forces of uncaring nature, petty fate and dumb, unlucky luck.