The Horse Thieves. Roads of Time (Kazakhstan/Japan 2019) [Reel Asian 2020]

The Horse Thieves. Roads of Time is a wholly original film that runs for a tight 81 minutes and utilises the mechanics of various genres to explore the impact of a murder on a family in a remote region of the world. The film, which opened the 2019 edition of the Busan International Film Festival, is an international co-production between Kazakhstan and Japan. It’s the collective vision of two directors: Yerlan Nurmukhambetov, who won the New Currents Award at the Busan International Film Festival 2015 for The Walnut Tree, and Lisa Takeba who is known for her quirky sci-fi tinged romcoms, The Pinkie (2014) and Haruko’s Paranormal Laboratory (2015). What is delivered is a picture that definitely deserves to be seen on the widest screen possible as it zeroes in on the tiny dramas of a group of characters clinging to life in an uncaring environment.

Apparently based on a real-life murder, the action takes place on the lonely steppes of Kazakhstan. Audiences are presented with gloriously beautiful widescreen vistas of grasslands dotted with the occasional village and lake, isolated roads cutting across vast tracts of territory and nomadic sheep herders. These sights are framed by sprawling mountain ranges and a vast sky and everything is presented as a grand vision of life on the frontier in a way reminiscent of the Westerns of John Ford. 

In one particular remote ranch lives a precocious preadolescent boy named Olzhas (Madi Minaidarov), his father Odasyn (Dulyga Akmolda), mother Aigul (Samal Yeslyamova) and two younger sisters. While Ozhas would rather play with his friends than help out his parents, he is unknowingly taking his first steps towards manhood as he experiences a burgeoning awareness of sexual desire and is learning more about his responsibilities to his community and adapting to the harsh reality of life on the steppes. 

The family’s main source of income is horses which Odasyn takes to market while everyone else picks tomatoes from small fields with other villagers. As the story sleepily slips between the perspectives of father, mother, and son, the scenes of everyone at work have the feel of an ethnographic study of everyday life on the Kazakh plains. A shift to the more narratively dramatic comes when Odasyn is murdered by horse thieves. Death is quiet and unceremonious in this vast landscape and so a sad sense of desolation follows rather than any tension. This sense provides the atmosphere from which a taut family conflict slowly emerges as Aigul and her children endure an uneasy funeral defined by broiling resentments that reveal to the young Ozhas that his life and the life of his mother is more complicated than he had previously imagined.

These secrets are teased out when Aigul makes plans to leave the village and recruits the help of a mysterious stranger named Kairat (Mirai Moriyama) who escorts them on horseback. With his appearance comes clues to Aigul and Ozhas’ background. The film mostly adopts the perspective of the boy as he observes the adults and begins to show his adaptation to the world by riding a white horse alongside Kairat. There is the sense the stranger could become a father to the boy but as the film ambles along on a road-movie-cum-family-drama, an interesting complication emerges as Olzhas shows that he is already a child of the plains and we see that his mother is playing a more active role in her family’s life following the death of her husband.

Quiet dramas continue to play out between the characters who engage in terse and uneasy conversations where they wrestle with repressed feelings of remorse, resentment and curiosity. The performances are mostly in body language and on the faces of the actors who are compelling enough to lend a relatively simple story some depth and intrigue. Yeslyamova, Cannes 2018 Best Actress winner for her role in Ayka, imbues her character with a toughness and maternal care that ensures her character is believable as a woman who takes charge. In his first overseas role, Moriyama (The Drudgery Train) spent three months learning the Kazakh language and horseback riding and on screen he confidently takes on the role of Kairat and acquits himself well among a predominantly Kazakh cast and captures the mysterious and laconic air that some of the best heroic gunslingers have.

Like many Westerns, it comes down to a shoot-out as the horse thieves re-emerge but the film remains committed to its more contemplative and subdued dynamics and allows things to remain ambiguous at the end as the story focuses on the sense of the boy having demonstrated a capacity to grow and learning more about the world and the adults who inhabit it. While slight, the beautiful and stirring images, potent atmospherics and strong performances make the film feel like an epic coming-of-age story. 

The Horse Thieves. Roads of Time is streaming as part of the Toronto Reel Asian International Film Festival from November 12-19.