Saturday, October 29, 2016

From the Rental Vault: Queen of the Mountains (2014)

Central Asia today is made up of countries most folks outside of them know little about, beyond what Sasha Baron Cohen made up about Kazakhstan. But most of them have deep histories full of fascinating characters well-suited to the swirling ethnic melange of the people who have lived there.

One such person was Kyrgyzstan tribal leader Kurmanjan Datka (1811-1907), a woman whose vision and fierce desire to protect her people in the face of Russian invasion has made her a national hero. Kyrgyzstan's 2014 entry for the Academy Awards was a biopic of her long life and work, Kurmanjan Datka: Queen of the Mountains. For its limited U.S. release, it lost the proper name.

We meet Kurmanjan as a five-year-old when her father seeks wisdom from a holy man about a desire for a son. The seer says his daughter will be worth 10 sons. We move forward to a teenaged Kurmanjan leaving an arranged marriage and seeking one with feudal lord Alymbek Datka ("datka" is a title, not a surname). Drop another few years to see them happily wed as Alymbek seeks to unite the Kyrgyz tribes, but political intrigue costs him his life. Surprisingly, the tribes rally around Kurmanjan and defeat their enemies, and she is named Datka by an overlord. In that position she will try to guide her people and protect them as the Russian Empire seeks a road to India. Though they resent submitting to the Russians and would prefer to fight, Kurmanjan realizes the superior Russian arms and numbers would overwhelm them. She secures an agreement of neutrality in which the tribes accept Russian rule and the Russians leave them to practice their customary way of life. It will eventually cost her dearly, but her devotion to her people carries her forward.

Queen was the most expensive movie ever made in Kyrgyzstan. and a major project for co-writer and director Sadyk Sher-Niraz. It's structured as a series of episodes rather than a sustained narrative, and spends less time developing any of the characters as much as you'd wish. Kurmanjan is basically a saint, those opposed to her purely evil villains, and and so on. Actresses Elina Abai Kyzy as the younger Kurmanjan and Nasira Mambetova as the older woman play her with studied reserve, but that's probably true to character for a woman wise enough and strong enough to take leadership in a male-dominated society. Two hours and change of the low-key work can get a little dull. But Sher-Niraz spent every dime of his production money well, and the amazing scenery and colorful clothing often provide the liveliness the script doesn't.

Queen didn't take any awards at the Oscars, but as an introduction to a fascinating player in history, a showcase for an amazing landscape and culture, it has few equals and is well worth the time invested. It may wind up being the launching pad for Abai Kyzy as well, which is likely to pay some dividends in good work down the road.

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