What’s that? Historical propaganda made under sketchy political circumstances? Wow wow wee wah.
Well, this is encouraging.
We start out with a framing device. It is Damascus in 941, and Abu Nasyr ibn Muhammad Al-Farabi at-Turk (phew) is telling us a true story immortalized by the Greek historian Herodotus. Well, it must be true if Herodotus said it. Anyways, it was the time when the Persian Empire was at its peak and Cyrus the Great had conquered half of the achy breaky world. The exceptions were Egypt and the Northern lands, which were inhabited by the Saka tribes. The steppes from the Caspian Sea to the Altai Mountains were their territory. The Massagetae were one of the many tribes. I don’t know how much of that is actually true, but we are out of the framing device and into the story proper.
It is the 6th Century BCE and the men are on a hunt. Chief Spargap gets the big kill. His men congratulate him; it is an auspicious sign for the impending birth of his heir. He says that he is now certain that his child will be a boy. Does it ever happen that the baby is a boy? One of the men notes that the hunting party has strayed too far off and are now in Akibat territory. Way to spoil the mood.
A group of Akibats manage to find the hunting party and…oh they start fighting almost immediately. The movie is just over four minutes in and I have no idea who is who. I guess that the Akibats like to wear bits of skeletons. The Massagetae win the engagement, but one man is badly wounded. He asks Chief Spargap to end his misery. Chief Spargap promises to see him again in Heaven and then stabs him to death. But now they have to hurry home; the baby is about to arrive. And we never hear of the Akibats again.
Chief Spargap arrives home to find his wife dying. And the baby…is a girl. Bopai apologizes for not being able to give him more, but tells him that the girl’s blood is their blood, and that her name is Tomiris. And then Bopai dies.
Years pass. Chief Spargap remarries and has a son. Still, he raises Tomiris to be a warrior. She pretends that she is the chief and Spargap tells her that she must be brave, fearless, and smart. Like him? Better than him.
A man named Palak comes to meet with a pair of men named Kavaz and Kurtun. Palak is from the neighboring Khwarezmian tribe, which could be ally, enemy, or whatever. So, the locals greet him cautiously. He meets with two representatives, and to complain about the raids from the steppe tribes. The two representatives say that they have tried to keep Spargap from raiding the Khwarezmians and foster an alliance instead. And I guess that that is why Palak is meeting with these two instead of with Spargap himself: he wants them to overthrow Spargap.
Later, at a meal with the Chief, Spargap calls out Kavaz and Kurtun for having friends among the Khwarezmians. They insist that it is merely trade stuff to get things for their wives. Spargap asks why trade with them when taking from them is also an option, and then another man teases them for submitting to the wishes of their wives. Smarting from the insults, Kavaz and Kurtun attempt to suggest making a deal with the Khwarezmians. That only angers Spargap, and he threatens to have them both beheaded. Or maybe he was just joking to see if they would get scared. This chief is not very nice.
Tomiris has a nightmare about…erm…this.
Tomiris goes to wake her father so that he can comfort her. It is at that time when men attack the house. Spargap and the surviving guards fight back. Tomiris even stabs someone in the…something. A man named Kharasp arrives to help out and Spargap tells him to take the children to safety. Of course, Tomiris doesn’t want to go, but Kharasp takes her away, though not before she can witness her father being taken down by Kavaz and Kurtun.
The survivors ride out and ride and ride. Unsure of whom they can trust, they avoid other villages and instead make their way to a cursed forest. Not all are happy with this decision, but what choice do they have?
Perhaps it was meant to be just a temporary solution, but the escapees end up staying there for the next several years. In time, Kavaz and Kurtun stopped searching for them, and the escapees stopped thinking about the massacre. But not Tomiris.
Finally, one day, Tomiris has had enough. Kavaz is getting old and he might die before Tomiris gets to kill him. So, she yells at Kharasp and leaves.
Tomiris has another dream about that lion-bird thingamee, which means that danger is afoot. She is not too far from the village, so she can hear the screams and rushes back. Everyone is dead except for Kharsap, and he is mortally wounded. Tomiris rushes to him. He apologizes for being unable to keep them safe. And then he dies.
Tomiris rushes to…somewhere…where she comes upon a group of about five men who have taken a couple women as captives. Tomiris attacks immediately. The captives try to take advantage of the ambush to fight back, but the men kill them. Tomiris manages to kill them all, though the last one takes a bit more…uh…effort.
Tomiris rides out of the forest and onto the plains. Well, her horse does. She is kind of slumped over and barely conscious due to her injury from the fight. The horse somehow takes her to a group of…women. They decide to take her to their village…or camp. Their home.
The leader of the group shows a now fully unconscious Tomiris to her mother. She points to the ring that Tomiris is wearing (her mother’s) to point out that she is not a commoner. So, the mother has Tomiris brought to the priestess, who…tends to her wounds and nurses her back to health.
Finally, Tomiris emerges from the tent. Her rescuer approaches her and introduces herself as Sardana, daughter of the Savromats’ Chief. She tells Tomiris to walk with her to see the Chief. Along the way, they encounter two women on horseback. Tomiris notices that one has a man’s head hanging from the saddle. Sardana says that a worthy husband shall notice a woman warrior who has taken three enemy skulls in battle. Tomiris asks if Sardana has a husband. No warrior has proven worthy of her, she replies.
The Chief comments on the Massagetae ring that Tomiris is wearing and asks where she is from. Tomiris is silent, so his wife tries to assure her that they are not her enemies. Tomiris then tells them that she is Tomiris from Massagetae. She also says that her loved ones were massacred and she is the only survivor. She expresses gratitude for them saving her life and letting her stay as they healed her. The Chief says that he knew Spargap as a good friend and a noble chief. Not so good that he was able to meet Tomiris back then, though. In any case, the Chief promises to protect her, but tells her that she must remain inconspicuous on the steppe. He then asks about those who had wounded her, and she replies that she killed them all. The Chief and his wife seem impressed. As they leave, Sardana asks Tomiris how many men attacked her. Enough for two husbands.
It is the evening and everyone is laughing by the campfire…well, Tomiris seems to be a little off in her own world. Sardana asks what she is thinking about. Her family, and everyone whom she had lost without a chance to say goodbye.
The next day, Tomiris takes a horse and rides off. Oh, that…doesn’t seem to be a very safe way to ride a horse. Sardana eventually catches up to her and teasingly asks if she is running away. No. Tomiris doesn’t want to run away anymore. So, they return to the Savromats.
Tomiris is gradually accepted by the Savromats and she adapts to their ways. I guess that her being raised to be a warrior and the Savromat women being trained as warriors made that a little easier than it could have been otherwise.
Oh, how nice. The Savromats have allowed Tomiris to accompany them on a deadly raid on some random village. They kill men and kidnap women. Tomiris notices a child crying, but she cannot really do anything as I guess that it is time to leave before reinforcements show up.
The next day, Sardana, Tomiris, and the other women cut their hands so that they bleed into a…cup…of milk. Sardana has Tomiris drink the milk. She declares Tomiris a sister and the others do as well. She is a Savromat now. She still keeps her Massagetae ring, though.
As the other women goof off in a lake…or river…Sardana tells Tomiris that they will attack the Khwarezmian village tomorrow and make off with much booty. Tomiris suggests that they split into two groups, where one lures the men out while the other goes into the village quietly and loots more with less resistance. That way, it lessens the bloodshed. Sardana finds that…interesting.
Well, I have no idea if the “split up” plan was actually put forth, because this raid looks chaotic as all heck. One little boy tries to stab Tomiris, but she chucks him into a pile of sticks and then pins him to the ground. A woman with a little kid comes out pleading for the attackers to spare their lives. She does sort of display admiration towards him for trying to protect his crying mother, but the boy exclaims that he is an orphan. This is a bit of an odd discussion to have right now.
Oh, wait. The woman whom Tomiris had assumed was the boy’s mother says that he is her servant and Tomiris can do whatever she wants with him as long as her family is spared. Tomiris gets off the boy and walks towards the woman, who presents her with some jewelry. Just what the Savromat came her for. But Tomiris says that she can keep it. She didn’t appreciate her most prized treasure: a boy who was willing to sacrifice his own life for her and her child. Tomiris walks off and tells the boy to follow. And he does. Then another raider snatches the jewels. You are never too busy to moralize.
It was a successful raid. But Sardana is bothered by Tomiris bringing the boy, Tiras. Tomiris argues that Tiras will make a great warrior. Sardana worries that he will try to avenge the death of his parents, but Tomiris tells her that his parents were already dead. She promises to take care of Tiras. Speaking of revenge, though, Sardana remembers that Tomiris has not taken hers yet. Tomiris claims that it is justice, not revenge. She gives Tiras a thingamee of drink, and he takes it.
The Chief now has a son and heir. Sardana seems fine with that, I guess. In any case, it is a cause for celebration. There is a gathering of tribes. Among them are Kavaz and Kurtun. Tomiris gives them the stinkeye. There is also the Khwarazmian chief with them. Tomiris admits that she wants to kill them right now, but she acknowledges that it is not time yet.
Sardana takes Tomiris to see a wrestling bout. The winner is Argun, son of the Dahae Chief. Okay.
Later, both Sardana and Tomiris take part in some horseback archery. Kavaz and Kurtun seem to be impressed, though they do not recognize Tomiris. Tomiris rides past Argun, who is also impressed. They introduce themselves, though Tomiris stays on her horse.
A meeting of the chiefs. The Savromat Chief tries to act a gracious host, but Kavaz is not interested in acting as honored guests, complaining about the raid on the Khwarezmian villages. Chief Savromat knows that Kavaz is an ally of the Khwarezmians and understands that they are upset, but he says that the Savromat has always lived off of raids. It’s the circle of death. Kavaz says that the enemy of his ally is his enemy. In the presence of all of the other chiefs, Kavaz demands that the Savromats stop the raid and that the chief give them his newborn as a pledge. The Savromat Chief is astonished that Kavaz would side with the Khwarezmians over his own kind, but that is how it is. Kavaz and his allies leave. Tomiris and Sardana watch them leave, departing not as guests, but as enemies.
The Savromat Chief tells the remaining chiefs that the steppe tribes should unite in case the Khwarezmians come for them. The Tigraxauda Chief is skeptical, not wanting to be a pawn of the Savromats. The Khwarezmians have not threatened him. Another shares his unwillingness to provoke those who have not bothered them during good times. Yet another states that he has good trade relations with Khwarazm. The Savromat Chief tries to remind them that Kavaz came to power by submitting the once proud Massagetae to the Khwarezm. But another chief counters that the Khwarezm have made the Massagetae strong. Looks like the Savromats are alone in this one.
Or maybe not. The Dahae chief has stuck around, and Savromat Chief reveals that the archer girl who got Argun’s attention is Tomiris, daughter of the vilely murdered Spargap. By the Will of Heaven, she happened upon his tribe. Will of Heaven, narrative convenience, close enough. The Dahae chief seems to understand. So, the Savromat Chief says that they must combine their armies and attack Kavaz before the Khwarezm can come to help him. And then the Massagetae will thank them for bringing back Spargap’s rightful heir.
Sardana wakes up Tomiris to tell her the good news: they will attack Kavaz tomorrow and Tomiris can avenge her father. Could have let her be well-rested for the attack, but the Chief wants to see Tomiris. So, they go to the tent and Savromat Chief introduces her to the Dahae Chief, Saprash. Well, at least ONE OF THEM has a name. In any case, they promise to help her establish herself as the chieftess of the Massagetae. Tomiris says that she understands that they are not doing this merely for her and Savromat Chief acknowledges that this is not merely her problem anymore. She also says that, while she has been waiting to take down Kavaz and Kurtun, she wants only those who killed her father. She will do this to stand up for her people, and will not go against them.
The morning comes and OH, okay.
Tomiris rides up alone towards the Massagetae forces, calling out Kavaz and Kurtun specifically. They ask who she is and she obliges. She also accuses them of murdering her father, which gets the Massagetae grumbling. She then addresses the Massagetae, saying that Kavaz and Kurtun are leading them into slavery under the Khwarezm. That she has come with the Dahae and Savromats, who do not wish to shed the blood of their brothers, only to see the traitors dead. Kavaz and Kurtun ride out to confront her and she kills both of them…fairly quickly.
Uh oh. The sons of Kavaz and Kurtun are not happy about this, and go on the attack. The Savromat and the Dahae start charging. Suddenly, a group of the Massagetae start going against the sons and have them subdued. The charge is halted. The man behind the mutiny declares that Tomiris is the rightful heir. He falls to his knees in front of Tomiris and apologizes, offering his life.
The battle is averted and the daughter of Spargap returns to the Massagetae village. The villagers greet her and…erm…the families of Kavaz and Kurtun are dragged out in front of her. Tomiris declares that she is here to rule, and those unhappy with that change can leave today. Oh…well…that is better than being immediately executed, right? She says that the friends of Khwarezm can seek shelter there. And with that, Tomiris is here, and the two families are exiled.
Tomiris takes her place on the chief’s…erm…seat. There is a very short ceremony and that is that. No time to celebrate though. There will be a battle with Khwarezm. And before that, she wants to see where her father is buried.
Tomiris is taken to her father’s resting place. She leans down and tells him that she has returned and taken back what he had left her. He can rest in peace. And one day, they will be together again.
It has been a while since I have featured a movie with this trope: the White outsider used to legitimize the narrative of the locals. In this case, it is the Greek Herodotus, as recounted by the (Muslim) Syrian with a very long name. That was, perhaps, not the best use of that trope, as Herodotus has been declared a shameless liar for a long time. Additionally, the Saka people are portrayed as Turkic-speaking Kazakhs while the ancient Massagetae were supposedly ethnically Iranians who spoke Iranian. Huh…not totally unlike the Persians who would eventually enter the storyline. So…yeah, not necessarily the most historically accurate movie.
There are also some suspicions regarding the reason for this movie being made. It was not just commissioned by a branch of the government, but was supposedly the creation of Aliya Nazarbayeva, who was also a general producer of the film. Nazarbayeva is the youngest daughter of Nursultan Nazarbayev, the first president of Kazakhstan. He was in office from December the 16th of 1991 to March the 20th of 2019, retiring just a few months before the release of this movie. Well, at least the movie looks nice. With government backing, one would hope so.
It has been theorized that this movie, with its “feminist” message, was meant to make Nazarbayev’s oldest daughter Dariga seem like a palatable presidential candidate. I am not sure if it worked, not just because she didn’t run, but because the movie made only $1.3 million on a $6.5 million budget. If that is to be believed, this was a shameless piece of political propaganda that absolutely bombed.
Well, I like it.
Perhaps it is due to my having no political or emotional ties to this story, but I can sort of take the story as just that. A story. Well…two stories. The first is one of a chief’s daughter falling from power and making her way back to the head of the tribe. The second, slightly shorter story, is how she…well…I suppose that you can guess. Another title for the movie is The Legend of Tomiris, which can maybe temper the claim within the movie that it is true. The dubious production and the bizarre decision to emphasize racial solidarity when the characters are…what is the term? Race-bent? Eh. While it is absolutely understandable to get upset at these examples of manipulative cultural theft…I personally don’t feel it. I just find this to be a fun flick.
I did try looking up a little bit of information about the real Tomiris on Wikipedia, but it seems to be mostly just printing the legend, with only the story with one side character being different. I did see that Tomiris is considered a national hero in Kazakhstan. So, there is that. I looked up Saka and Khwarazm on Wikipedia. The Saka article did not mention Khwarazm and the Khwarazm article mentioned Saka as a culture. So, I have no idea.
I kind of like the somewhat odd presentation of the culture here. I have seen depictions of communities raiding others, be them Mongols or Vikings. But I do not remember them showing genuine surprise that the regular victims of their raids are unhappy about this reality. And the movie even says that not all of the steppe tribes raid Khwarazm, so the Massagetae and its close allies were in the wrong here. The part where Tomiris chews out that woman for abandoning her servant during a raid amused me a lot. Yeah, she was wrong for trying that, but you can’t claim the moral high ground while pillaging a village for loot.
There are other little things that might be considered odd, but I found to be kind of fun. While I have no real issue with the acting, the dialogue was spoken in a rather stilted manner. Perhaps that is because the characters were speaking in a sort of made-up proto-Turkic language instead of just Kazakh. That is a weird choice, especially if the Saka were actually Iranic. I guess that it was meant to give the characters a more ancient feel. Perhaps the movie could have shaved off twenty or thirty minutes if they spoke naturally, but I got used to it. I enjoyed the battle scenes, but it definitely got difficult at times to work out who was on which side. The clothes worn by the Massagetae were also subject to criticism, so I don’t know. Finally, I got the inkling that the movie inserted Argun into the story just to offset the chemistry between Tomiris and Sardana. “Sisters” indeed. Interestingly, Sardana does not marry at all. I guess that she did not find a man worthy of her fighting prowess.
I have seen this movie called feminist and…I am not sure about that. It may have been revisionist regarding women warriors, but I have no idea. Spargap was pretty open about wanting a son. It is unclear whether Spargap trained Tomiris to be the son whom he never had…even after he sires other children. It is also unclear whether the Savromat are unique in having their women be warriors or if that is common throughout the Saka. I had personally assumed that Tomiris would have had to prove herself as a leader and warrior among the Saka and…well, that turned out to not be the case. It appears that women are not expected to take official leadership roles in the community unless they have no brother. Tomiris may have not become the leader of the Massagetae had her half-siblings not been killed. And while she does return to take back power…she also gets married to Argun. Meanwhile, Sardana leads her “sisters” on raids, but shows no reservations with her father calling her baby brother his heir.
Er…yeah. That’s it. Is this movie good? No. Is this movie good by any criteria? I mean, it looked good, but beyond that probably not. But it entertained me and that is enough.
WTF ASIA 245: Bandits Vs. Samurai Squadron (Japan: 1978, approx. 163 minutes)
WTF ASIA 246: Yi-Yi (Taiwan: 2000, approx. 174 minutes)