Previously filmed 45 years ago under its original title, leading Soviet-era Kyrgyz literary figure Chingiz Aitmatov’s 1970 novella “The White Ship” gets a handsome new screen treatment in Artykpai Sunyundukov’s “Shambala.” This tale of a boy’s troubled childhood in a remote Tengri Mountains region is the Kyrgyz Republic’s Oscar submission. Its scenic beauty and production gloss certainly invite international exposure. However, some prospective outlets may find it awkwardly straddles family entertainment and bleaker adult storytelling — in addition to the slick presentation undercutting a cautionary message told in rather old-fashioned, crudely symbolic terms.
Still best known abroad for his 1958 breakthrough novel, much-adapted romance “Jamila,” Aitmatov was fond of weaving folklore and mythology into his narratives of contemporary life. That tack is central here, as the titular juvenile protagonist clings to ancestral superstitions for reassurance as “progress” changes his world for the worse. Eight-year-old Shambala (Artur Amanaliev) is parentless, his mother having died, his father working as a sailor somewhere far away, possibly never to return. Nor does our hero have any playmates, living in isolation with childless Auntie Bekey (Taalaykan Abazova), her husband, Orozkul (Talant Apyev), and a cross step-grandmother (Djamilia Sydykbaeva).
On the plus side, he’s got the magnificent surrounding hills, mountains, rivers and lakes as his playground. Also a doting grandfather, Momun (Nasret Dubashev), who’s a wellspring of practical and proverbial wisdom about that landscape, notably the protecting spirit of Mother Deer — occasionally glimpsed from afar as a splendid beast-god poised on a cliff’s edge or hilltop, sporting an antler rack that would be any trophy hunter’s dream come true. As the area’s longtime chief gamekeeper, Grandpa has honored and protected nature. When he’s persuaded to relinquish the role, however, successor Orozkul quickly turns exploiter of any resource that can be monetized. Further, Uncle O. beats his barren wife, disrespects his elders and becomes impudent orphan Shambala’s would-be disciplinarian.
While the film’s initial air of rapt oneness with the natural world can border on the gaga (an idyll beneath a mountain waterfall comes with its own rainbow), “Shambala” has a beguiling, sunstruck lyricism until the brute Ozozkul begins to dominate its slim narrative. He presides over the desecration of graves, searching for any valuable artifacts; uses a tractor to dislodge a sacred fertility-goddess statue secreted in the woods; terrorizes the family in drunken rages. Embodying the greedy, crass spirit of soulless capitalism — in Aitmatov’s original he represented Stalin’s equally ruinous influence — he is a stock villain from a hoary melodrama.
The script by veteran documentarian Sunyundukov (making a relatively rare foray into fictive cinema) aims for a fadeout more resilient and vaguely inspirational than the downbeat book. Nonetheless, “Shaman” grows more heavy-handed as it goes on. Perhaps a film with a more fable-like air might have pulled off the rather primitive indictment here. But the very sophistication of the director’s packaging tends to underline the “old ways good/new ways bad” content’s retro naiveté. The virtues of tradition and faults of modernity are portrayed in well-meaning but simplistic ways that might play better if the film’s own sweeping drone shots and other high-tech elements weren’t so flashily conspicuous.
Yet it is that sensuously overripe presentation that keeps “Shambala” enjoyable, even as its messaging grows ponderous. The cinematography, credited to both Murat Aliyev (who died last year) and Akzhol Bekbolotov, heightens even the rich colors found in oft-stunning locations, with post-production elements adding discreet use of CGI and filters. While Murzali Zhenbaev’s orchestral score is a bit conventional, almost syrupy, there is welcome occasional deployment of folk idioms, including Tuvan throat singing.
Sunyundukov directs his well-cast actors with a sure hand, though at least in the English-subtitled version reviewed, the precise import of a few subsidiary characters remains murky. Offshore viewers may also be puzzled by brief large-scale flashbacks to long-ago invasions, presumably those of 17th-century Mongols, whose pillaging gets equated with today’s commercial environmental destruction.
But the uncomplicated primary narrative moves at a brisk pace. It would provide appealing boy’s-own-adventure fare for all ages … if the later going didn’t lean so hard on havoc wrought by alcohol and domestic violence. Beautiful-looking and admirably eco-conscious as it is, “Shambala” lands in that always-odd position of being a movie too dark for children yet a bit too juvenile for adults.