As Well Go USA presses on with its usual venture into tastemaker territory, their recent acquisition of Kazakh filmmaker Akan Satayev’s twelfth feature fim, The Legend Of Tomiris, is set to grant an audience for this year’s virtual installer of the nineteenth New York Asian Film Festival. The film opened in Kazakhstan late last year, and while it reportedly drew a bit of controversy in the process among historians with respect to certain language aspects, that’s not to say the film doesn’t do a fine job of carrying its weight from start to finish.
Satayev’s grand-scale Herodotian epic spans a good two-and-a-half hours for its duration, as it immerses you in a VO-narrated flashback to a time when the nomadic Saka tribes ruled the steppe. Our story focuses on the title character of Tomiris, raised from birth within the Massagetae, led by tribal chief Spargap (Murat Bisenbin), raised, loved and trained in all aspects of warrior life and survival. Though life on the steppe is peaceful, it is only a matter of time before that peace is upended in a moment of betrayal, forcing Spargap’s cohorts to rescue Tomiris and escape to safety as Khwarezmian assassins attack.
Managing to find a home in the woods, Tomiris (Almira Tursyn) is raised into womanhood with dreams of revenge, but the shadow of death still lurks behind. The sole survivor of a vicious attack, the battle-wounded, horseback Tomiris is carried out into the desert, and retrieved by Sardana (Aizhan Lighg), the warrior alpha of the Amazonian tribe, the Savromats. Her newfound alliance not only brings her healing, but a newfound sisterhood, as well as a potential romantic prospect of the Dahae chief’s adept son, Argun (Adil Akhmetov). As time passes, however, it also proves an opportune moment that not only grants Tomiris the vengeance she needs, but a formidable return to her birthright: her father’s throne.
While film adaptations based on icons of ancient world history take tons of research, historical epics generally tend to play a little loosely with certain elements for the sake of creative liberties, and so the conversation regarding whatever comparitive iterations there are of Tomiris’s history are entirely welcome if it means we get to learn more about the legend itself, and especially if another director decides to take the mantle for their own filmic version. As for Satayev’s The Legend Of Tomiris, it may not be a seamless recount of the history ancient warrior queen, but at 150+ minutes – fifty-five minutes shy of its original version as screened in Kazakhstan late last year, the film is nothing short of stimulating as a conversation starter.
To that effect, The Legend Of Tomiris gracefully adds itself to the pantheon of sprawling sword-and-shield flicks, accomplishing for female-fronted war epics what authors, artists and scholars of yesteryear have done for the likes of Odysseus and Arthur Pendragon, and even Rani Lakshmi Bai, the subject of two recent movies herself: The Warrior Queen Of Jhansi and Manikarnika: The Queen Of Jhansi. To top it all off is the fruition of casting actress Almira Tursyn (who is also a psychologist according to the film’s Wikipedia page) out of a roster of fifteen thousand candidates, in what would ultimately be her feature film debut role.
The remainder of the film explores the perils Tomiris and her men face when legendary Persian warlord Cyrus the Great (Ghassan Massoud) enters the millieu and finds himself engaging in a battle of wits when Cyrus sends his emissaries to parlay with Argun. The film also dives deep earlier on into Tomiris’s own inner-conflict, from trying to decipher her recurring nightmares of confronting a demonic lion-like beast made of smoke and fire (dicey, to auditing her own humanity while acting out in accordance with her peers as, for all intents and purposes, a bandit; There’s no mistaking that with Tomiris’s training and gifts accrued from childhood that they would all be used to help pillage and plunder nearby villages as her father did. To the benefit of screenwriters Aliya Nazarbayeva and Timur Zhaksylykov, that this was a way of life during this pariticular epoch in world history presents several opportune character moments to our lead heroine’s credit, which is essential to the film’s plot in order to build sympathy when it counts.
Like all heroes in exile faced with the Herculean task of amassing support for a gargantuan comeback, Tomiris defintiely endures her share of hardship until meeting Sardana. The Savromat chief and his cohorts recognize Tomiris’s namesake – the ring of her father’s tribal leadership – as well as yer competitive physical talents and intelligence. Apart from their own political benefits, Sardana herself sees nothing short of camraderie in her bond with Tomiris, handing her an ally she would unequivocally fight for when needed. Tomiris’s romance with Argun is a slow and steady brew that provides a decent love story arc packed with all the charm and brooding you could expect between two professional killers falling in love, and the foreboding upheaval they are faced with over time.
Part and parcel to The Legend Of Tomiris is the climatic battle that awaits between the nomadic queen, and Cyrus, who is said to have conquered up to half the world by this stage. A daring ploy on Cyrus’s part is the catalyst that ignites the bitter rivalry at a key moment that instantly sees Tursyn’s Tomiris going full-on Leonitus in a scene that would indelibly have Zack Snyder grinning with admiration, as she commences flexing her muscles as a dexterous war strategist.
While an extended cut of The Legend Of Tomiris may one day provide audiences outside Kazakhstan with the luxury of seeing Satayev’s full realization of the story of the nomadic warrior queen, the current version deals a more than hefty serving of cinematic biographical spectacle. From the seething drama, romance and enigmatic subtext to the thunderous sound of galloping horse hooves amid the meticulously designed battle sequences by stunt coordinator Zhaidarbek Kunguzhinov, and ambient score and production design, for what it’s worth, The Legend Of Tomiris offers a fully-fledged feminist historical action opus that deserves our attention.
The Legend Of Tomiris is releasing on Digital, Blu-Ray and DVD on September 29 from Well Go USA.
NYAFF streams for its 19th installment from August 28 through September 12. Click here to learn more!