An unusual partnership between Kazakhstan and Japan is behind the film “The Horse Thieves. Roads of Time” and it is not just a co-production. The film is in fact co-directed by Kazakh filmmaker Yerlan Nurmukhambetov and Japanese Lisa Takeba – who allegedly met at a party in Cannes – and stars among others, Kazakh film actress Samal Yeslyamova, winner of best actress at Cannes for “Ayka” in 2018, and Japanese actor Mirai Moriyama. The film had its premiere at Busan International Film Festival on the 3rd of October and it is being screened in cinemas around Japan as I write. The odd English title may sound a bit arcane, while the Japanese one – which translates “Olzhas’ White Horse” – goes straight to the point; however, the simple explanation is that “Roads of Time” is the series of paintings by Kazakh artist Gali Myrzashev which are shown during the end credits.

The Horse Thieves. Roads of Time” was screened at Göteborg International Film Festival

The film tells the story of 10-year-old Olzhas (an excellent Madi Minaidarov in his debut) going through a pivotal moment of his life, a moment that will probably shape his future. Olzhas lives with his loving parents and two little sisters on the barren steppes of rural Kazakhstan. On a clear morning like many other, he is preparing to go and help his mum Aigul (Samal Yeslyamova) working in the fields – as boys do – while his dad, horse breeder Ondasyn (Dulyga Akmolda) is away on a business trip. He is going to the town market with other villagers to sell some of the horses. Sadly, the men fall into an ambush laid by three ruthless horse thieves and get brutally murdered and – as a last gesture of disrespect – are thrown in a bush, while the criminals run away with the horses and Ondasyn’s cracked wristwatch. The only survivor of the ambush is a small kitten Ondasyn was keeping in his jacket, ready to give to his kids.

Overwhelmed by the events, Aigul manages to hold together and go ahead with the funeral plans, while the kids are kept out of it in a fool attempt to protect them and delay the pain, but predictably, this only leads to the opposite result, when Olzhas finally realises what happened. In the meantime, a mysterious man (Mirai Moriyama) has arrived in the village and he’s looking for Aigul. His name is Kairat and we soon discover that he’s been missing from Aigul’s life for 8 years and that their lives are indissolubly connected by an important secret they share. Kairat agrees to help Aigul and the kids to relocate home and horses in another village, near the woman’s family, and during the transfer he and the boy get to know each other. Until they stumble upon the horse thieves…

A definite slow-burner, “The Horse Thieves. Roads Of Time” takes its time to unravel the story and reach the climax, but at a neat 84 minutes, it never feels unnecessarily stretched. The plot was inspired by a news-story and the film retains that matter-of-fact-ness, down to the final showdown. Yes, because if you haven’t gained until now, the ingredients are all there; an outpost, a handful of horse thieves, a stranger with a dubious past, a dose of vengeance, a long, battered trench coat and a sawed-off shotgun. “The Horse Thieves. Roads Of Timeis truly a bona fide Kazakh Western film with some art-house blood in its vein that succeeds in reaffirming a strong identity despite the unfamiliar genre and a collab between countries that could not be more different.

Directors Nurmukhambetov and Takeba have chosen to place the characters of their small saga against the grandiose backdrop of the Kazakh steppes of the Almaty Region, in the deep heart of the Asian Continent, to highlight the very little power they have in facing the fate and the events that overturn their lives. This sweet little story of a father and son achieves in this way epic and timeless traits. Echoing in the emptiness of the landscape, the sparse dialogues are an interplay of solids and voids, spoken and unspoken, that subtlety but very effectively conveys the complex feelings and the turmoil behind those silent eyes.

Despite being a father and son story, populated mostly by men and narrated from a boy’s perspective, the film has a strong feminine component carried by Samal Yeslyamova’s Aigul. She is a strong element in the story, in facts she perfectly embodies the solid, familial reference point and the necessary resilience (excuse me the overused word) to survive in the wild borderland. Moriyama, with his strong features, adds exoticism to the “stranger with a dark past” and he is to be applauded for his horse-riding and his Kazakh dialogues too. The boy, Madi Minaidarov, does a really good job and he coincidentally resembles a lot – in features and in kind of character – to Por Silatsa, the boy in Mattie Do’s “The Long Walk”, seen too at Goteborg International Film Festival.

The cinematography from Aziz Zhambakiev has the geographic-documentary quality but with a very personal mood. Some of the scenes are memorable, like the portrait of tomato picking in the fields, with a warm, 70s-snapshot-like light and touches of bright red and petrol blue artfully placed. Just beautiful.

“The Horse Thieves. Roads of Time” is the typical festival animal; however, I wish it also a happy life in cinemas where it truly deserves to be seen.

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