August 6, 2008

Directionless Nomad

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My recent trip to Central Asia has piqued my interest in the history and culture of the region, given its historical significance as the crossroads between East and West. While reading a copy of the Tengri, Air Astana's inflight magazine, I came upon an article on the pretty Kazakh singer Dilnaz Akhmadiyeva. Intrigued, I bought two of her CDs in Almaty before I left. The same article also mentioned that Dilnaz had a small part in the movie Nomad.  I vaguely remember reading about this movie, so I went to Amazon and, after reading the reviews telling me that it's worth a try, spent $10.99 plus shipping for the movie.

I finally sat down today and watched the movie. While the cinematography was stunning for the most part, and the musical score just as nice, the movie as a whole was a real dud. Nevermind that the movie was funded by the Kazakh government as an expensive PR movie ...or that the first director walked out and the film had to be finished by a second director ...or that the movie was filmed in both English and Kazakh, but neither in its entirety so that no matter which version you watched, parts of it were poorly dubbed ...or that the three main characters were portrayed by a German-looking Mexican (Kuno Becker), a Mexican-American (Jay Hernandez), and a Hawaiian/Chinese-American (Jason Scott Lee), with only the latter possessing Kazakh-looking features. I was turned off within the first 60 seconds of the movie, during the first narrative by Oraz (Jason Scott Lee's character). Oraz tells the story of the Kazakh people - who are descendents of Genghis Khan - who have seen their land invaded by foreign tribes such as the Jungars. Whoa! Stop right there! Say that again?!

First of all the Kazakh people, who are really a breakaway branch of the Uzbeks, are descendents of Turkic tribes from the region as well as the descendents of Genghis Khan's invading Mongol army, who swept into Central Asia and basically sacked every major city. While it is true that the later Kazakh and Uzbek khans could claim lineage back to Genghis Khan and his second son Chaghatai, I'm not sure that we can say the same about the majority of Kazakhs.

What of the invading Jungar bad guys? Guess what? They are otherwise known as the Oyrats, another Mongol clan. So this whole thing is about one Mongol clan invading another, as they share the same tribal ancestors. The only difference I can see is that the Kazakhs and Uzbeks converted to Islam while the Jungars adopted Tibetan Buddhism, and the war may be more along religious lines than ethnic.

Towards the end of the movie, the protagonist led the brave Kazakh people - guarding the fortress of Turkistan with traditional weapons - against the evil Jungars who had enlisted the help of their Russian buddies and their canons. Wrong again! History tells us that it was the Kazakhs who accepted Russian protection against the Jungars, before the Jungars were defeated by Qing Dynasty China.

I realize that the movie is adapted from Ilyas Ysenberlin's celebrated novel Nomads, and that it's only a fictional account of the life of Abylay Khan. But the inaccurate historical references, coming on top of bad acting, bad directing, bad dubbing...etc was just too much for me. It's no wonder that the movie got 14 rotten out of 15 at Rotten Tomatoes.

I guess the Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev really wanted to polish up the country's image after all the hubbub stirred up by Borat...

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