Director: Akan Satayevs
Cast: Almira Tursyn, Adil Akhmetov, Erkebulan Dairov
Runtime: 2 hrs 8 mins
Rating: NC16 (Violence)
Released By: Shaw Organisation
Opening Day: 10 December 2020
Synopsis: Based on historical heroine Queen Tomiris of Massagetae and her cadre of female warriors (the real-life 6th century BCE Amazonians who inspired the mythical tales), The Legend of Tomiris recounts the tale of the nomadic ruler who overcame great personal tragedy to repel the powerful Persian empire and unite the Great Steppe.
Not always do you get the chance to see a Kazakh film on the big screen, but ‘The Legend of Tomiris’ is as good a reason as it gets for you to seize that opportunity. As its title suggests, the movie tells of the legendary queen of the steppe named Tomiris, a great warrior whose army was believed to have defeated and beheaded the Persian warlord King Cyrus II at a battle near the Syr Darya river.
No effort has been spared to bring this historical opus to life – from the scale of the battles, to the sheer number of extras employed, and right down to the intricacy of the costumes as well as production design, there is no lack of ambition and effort in Kazakh filmmaker Alan Satayev’s twelfth feature. Just as epic is its length, which at more than two hours, feels like a history lesson which should either have been condensed or at least broken up into a couple of episodes in the form of a miniseries.
Indeed, as it stands, the plotting tries to cover too much ground, spanning the treacherous death of her father at a young age at the hands of two of her own people, her acceptance into the Savromats tribe, returning to reclaim her rightful place as queen of the Massagetae people, her marriage to the Dahae chief’s adept son Argun (Adil Akhmetov), and finally facing up to the greatest threat to the freedom of her kingdom and her peoples. The last occupies the third act of the film, so you can imagine just how much ground the storytelling tries to cover before getting to the climax.
Getting to the most thrilling part of the movie however is an exercise in patience. Too many subplots and indistinguishable supporting characters are crammed into the first two acts, with too little focus on elucidating Tomiris’ leading role – besides being motivated to avenge the death of her father, we know little about what else drives her, or how she evolves from vengeance to nobility and ultimately to wisdom. It doesn’t help that Satayev fails to inject momentum into the storytelling, so much so that the first half unfolds with little pace.
Only when King Cyrus comes into the picture does the storytelling move with greater urgency, culminating in a spectacular battle on the steppes which probably is just about the most ambitious sequence ever for the Kazakh film industry. Not only does it look like it was staged with hundreds of extras, the hand-to-hand combat scenes are impressively brutal and realistic, not least because each of the characters seem to be performing their own stunt work – including newcomer Almira Tursyn, a psychologist who picked up lessons in horseriding and archery just to play Tomiris.
Though it does end on a high note, ‘Tomiris’ ultimately suffers from the weight of its own sombreness. Given how it was ordered into production by the Ministry of Culture and Sports, there must have been some restraint on artistic license which the filmmakers could have exercised, and the result is a retelling that could have been a lot less dry than it currently is. Both for novelty and for its action, it is still worth a trip to the cinemas, but here’s fair warning that it does feel as long as it lasts, so those looking for a popcorn blockbuster like ‘Troy’ or ‘Kingdom of Heaven’ will probably be sorely disappointed.
(In terms of ambition, scope and battle spectacle, this is undoubtedly an epic, but this over two-hour long film also suffers from monotony due to thin plotting and characterisation)
Review by Gabriel Chong