"Kazakhstan, greatest country in the world. All other countries are run by little girls." Yeah, before this, everything I knew about Kazakhstan was courtesy of Borat, and so could kindly be described as of questionable accuracy. This film fills in some historical background, and the place also looks quite pretty, with wide sweeping plains, majestic mountains, etc. Who knew? This is set near the beginning of the 18th century [it feels earlier, with an almost total lack of firearms in the battle scenes], when the Dzungar tribes swept across the Kazakh lands. As a young boy, Sartai (Tolypov, plucked from obscurity in a casting call for which 22,000 people auditioned) sees them slay his parents, and barely escapes, fleeing to the mountains with his surviving relatives, where they hide out for years. But revenge is best served cold, and when he reached manhood, Sartai, along with fellow survivors Taimas (Utepbergenov) and Korlan (Anarbekova), begins a campaign against the invaders. However, they are massing their forces for a decisive battle that will decide the fate of the nation.
It's basically Braveheart for Kazakhs, with everything that implies, both good and bad. Subtlety goes more or less out of the window in terms of both storyline and characterization, with the Dzungars portrayed as evil from the get-go, which seem them arrowing down a child, on the vague justification that today's child is tomorrow's warrior. Similarly, Sartai is heroic to the point of glowing; there's a subplot which involves Taimas getting fed up with his friend getting all the attention, and you can sympathize. Sartai, of course, forgives him his trespasses, because that's what heroes do. Still, as a straightforward tale of archery, equestrianism and noble personal sacrifice, it mostly delivers, with some impressively-staged battle scenes and well-photographed landscapes. If it doesn't challenge any obvious cinematic conventions, it does manage to make you forget about Sacha Baron Cohen's creation for a couple of hours, and that's no small feat.