In fantasies, the son of a warrior is almost always destined to become a warrior himself. For a young Kazakh boy, destiny calls early. Fate is serious business on the Central Asian steppe, but so is revenge in Raiymbek Aizhanov’s longish short film Mergen, included in the Radical Spirits shorts block, which screens as an on-demand selection of the 2021 Fantasia International Film Festival.
Mergen’s father is a warrior in the Khan’s army, but he has not been heard from for an ominously long time. Nevertheless, Mergen’s mother and second-sighted grandmother decide to stay behind when their nomadic clan departs, in hopes he will eventually find them later. Instead, it will be other warriors from both sides of the conflict that intrude upon their yurt (as a former resident of an Upper Eastside studio, I have to say yurts look pretty spacious and comfy).
Aizhanov’s nearly half-hour film is filled with hack-and-slash action and sweeping steppe backdrops, but it also includes a good deal of spiritually-based fantastical elements: visions, portents, and messages communicated through dreams. It is exotic looking, but archetypally familiar. Think of it as the sort of film Mel Gibson would like to still be able to make.
Young Alikhan Abi is impressively expressive and disciplined, but also looks age-appropriately small and vulnerable as the title character. Yerzhanov Gazret adds tragic heft as the Kazakh traitor. Aizhanov stages some satisfying action sequences and cinematographer Sardar Baimolden makes it all look big and cinematic.
Mergen might look like a historical fantasy, but the notion of traditional Kazakhs defending their way of life has resonance today. In addition to Uyghurs, ethnic Kazakh Muslims have also been subject to mass imprisonment, re-education, forced labor, and the suppression of their religion and culture in East Turkestan (Xinjiang). However, Kazakhstan’s authoritarian regime has done its best to suppress Uyghur protests—Mergen’s family would not approve.
Aizhanov’s film definitely feels like the first half of a longer feature, but it leaves us wanting part II, so it clearly works. Highly recommended, Mergen screens within the Radical Spirits shorts program, an on-demand selection of this year’s Fantasia.