Issue 47 (2015)

Bair Dyshenov: Steppe Games (Talyn Naadan, 2014)

reviewed by Gulbara Tolomushova© 2015

Three Songs in the Steppe

The feature film Steppe Games by Buryat director Bair Dyshenov was included in the debut competition of the Montreal International Film Festival 2014, and it also participated in the program “Cinema Today” at the Singapore IFF. In 2009, Dyshenov received a Crystal Bear at the Berlinale Generation Campus for his short film Buddha’s Smile (Ulybka Buddy) and in 2011 he made a short film Mother’s Order (Nakaz materi).

During the night of his enlightenment, sitting under the tree of Bodhi, Buddha experienced insight and saw the whole chain of his previous incarnations – tens of thousands of previous lives. And not only this: he saw the previous lives of other living beings passing to the past. This night and the following nights he saw their future lives as well, if he wanted to. (The Life of Buddha)

Buddhists of the past had a complete conception about their religion. It might have been simplified, but still it was complete… Today’s Buddhists are torn away from their own cultural basis, and the ignorance and fragmentariness of religious knowledge as such present a big danger. (Andrei Bazarov)

steppegamesThe Tugnui Valley in Southern Transbaikalia, which is mentioned in the Secret History of the Mongols, was the shooting location for SteppeGames. The warlike tribe of Merkits, the ancestors of several modern Buryat tribes, lived here eight centuries ago. But the steppe is not only a shooting location; as Bair Dyshenov explains: “It is a separate, independent, living and acting character of the narration.” It is sacred territory, where the events of the lives of three warriors of the present and the past unfold: Bator, a demobilized soldier from the Russian Army; the Chechen War veteran Purbe; and an unnamed Merkit warrior. The “fights without rules” that prevail today are delicately juxtaposed to the Code of Honor of the Great Steppe warriors of ancient times. On the other hand, the hopelessness of today’s young generation, still undetermined about the priorities of life, makes them act without logic or common sense.

In the prologue we get acquainted with the heroes: a critically wounded young Buryat warrior, who is trying hard to hold the bridle of his horse. The rider dies, and his horse starts its long and hard journey back home, carrying the sad news about the master’s death. Briefly we see the shepherd – the father of the dead archer. And here is the carriage of the Merkit princess, who is accompanied by her fiancé and the loyal warrior-guards. The solid carriage with the sleeping Purbe moves slowly. And finally, there is Bator, a demobilized soldier of the Russian Army in full feather. He lightly jumps off the ferry and confidently steps on to his native steppe land. His friends in foreign cars rush to take the good soldier to a café. The noise of the passing car shakes off Uncle Purbe’s drowsiness: curiosity excites him—what turmoil broke the silence of his beloved steppe? Bator greets the war veteran without stopping, and one of the guys teases him: “Uncle Purbe, no balls!” The elderly commander really can not have children due to a missile wound.

steppegamesIn the meantime, Bator’s return is noisily celebrated in the café. There is vodka and snacks on the table. Several guys and a girl are at the table. This girl delivered to Bator the sad message that today, his beloved Altana is marrying a rich guy from Moscow. Bator is intent on doing his best to get his girl back. Hidden among gigantic boulders of the steppe heights, a symbolic fortification of Altana’s farmstead, Bator observes the wedding preparations: the wedding dress is brought. As for the princess, she is happy and serene in her carriage, the steppe is quiet and it seems that nothing can hinder her journey.

The present day. One of Altana’s brothers, the giant Maksar, drives a minivan and sings a soulful song: he is feeling good. Suddenly, Maksar notices Purbe’s carriage, but without Purbe. It occurs to him that someone has offended Purbe: he is sitting on a log on the roadside, crying bitterly. Maksar gives him a bottle of water, and Purbe sheds more tears. Barely audible, he utters through tears: “Why do our best men die?” Only after an offered shot of vodka, Purbe stands up and gives a newspaper to Maksar for him to read. With a grin and the bottle, he hurries off. Altana’s brother reads the headline: “Hugo Chavez has died” and he rushes after Purbe with fury. But the latter turned to the other side and could thus save himself from his benefactor’s anger.

Bator prepares a romantic message for Altana: he uses a tree bark as a tiny raft, which should carry tiny steppe flowers to the girl along a small irrigation canal.

At the farmstead there is turmoil: the faithful horse has brought back the sleeping Purbe. Maksar exposes the veteran to cruel mockeries: in the eyes of all those present he lowers a huge cauldron with a snoring drunkard in it onto the fire. The uncle wakes up, and snatches an axe to kill Maksar. He is stopped by his wife’s slap. Purbe leaves Altana’s farmstead.

steppegamesThe Merkits come close to the dead warrior-archer’s horse. Once it is in the circle of the persecutors, their leader Arsalan mounts the horse. The princess’s fiancé notices the persecutors and fights with one. The laws are strictly observed in the Great Steppe, and people obey them. The two warriors sort out their relationship in single combat, while the other persecutors observe the fight. The bride leaves the carriage and mounts her horse. The fight begins. Only two are alive in the steppe: the girl and Arsalan; he overtakes the princess. Realizing that she cannot get away from him, the girl starts to cry. Gradually her weeping is amplified and echoes in the steppe, creating a polyphonic effect. The princess’s universal lament clogs the ears of her persecutor, who cannot understand anything. He is forced to stop his pursuit: it seems that the Great Steppe is weeping. The wailing transforms into a steppe song – an anthem to the “Black Horse.” Nothing is left from the persecutor’s bravery: Arsalan turns back. 

This is a tremendous scene in the film, which demonstrates the ability of a Buryat woman to find a way out of a hopeless situation, when it seems that there is no rescue. At this point, the acquisitive nature of weeping brings back to memory the scene where Uncle Purbe begs Maksar for vodka. On the other hand, the death of all warrior-guards of the princess leads to a reconsideration of Purbe’s words: “Why do our best men die?”

Good-natured at first sight, the giant Maksar easily beats the demobilized soldier. Here no laws are obeyed: two of Altana’s brothers hold the soldier, while the big fellow beats unmercifully. While the brothers beat the soldier, the Chechen War veteran—unable to bear public disgrace in the for of a slap in the face from his wife—hangs himself with the bridle of his faithful horse. When Purbe’s wife finds her husband’s motionless body, it takes time for her to regain her senses.

In the meantime, Bator returns to the café to his friends, who are enthusiastically singing a Buryat folk song about a horse. It seems that they are ready to perform a feat, to protect the weak and the destitute. Bator tells them about his incident with Maksar: “I only wanted to talk to him… Let us spoil the wedding!” On the way, a harsh argument takes place between Bator and Badmaich, the deputy, who also hurries to the steppe wedding.

A wedding limousine for Altana arrives. On the way to her farmstead, the car stops in the middle of the steppe. Two young Muscovites—the groom and his best man, synchronously rotating around their own axis—generously water the steppe soil.

Bator takes up his favorite observation point between some huge boulders. He notices that the groom has finally arrived. The people are exulted. The omnipresent Badmaich detects Bator in his hiding and beats him up, while two policemen hold him. Not knowing how to continue the demonstration of his superiority over the soldier, Badmaich shoots Bator’s horse.

steppegamesWhen watching the film, the viewer is invited to compare the age-old code of honor with contemporary behavior, which turns all regulations inside out: in the steppe they aimed at warriors, not their horses; nowadays they prefer to shoot the horse so as to avoid the charge of murder. In the past, the horse would return with sad messages; nowadays the horse is killed and an innocent soldier is sent behind the bars. In the past, warriors absorbed the established code of honor with their mother’s milk: when two were fighting, the rest would observe from some distance; nowadays, if the two engage in single combat, then the others strike a treacherous blow on their backs. In the past, it was possible to arouse pity of the most terrible enemy; nowadays people complain in order to drown their sorrow. In the past, a girl was the centre of the Great Steppe: she was protected, pampered and cherished for the glory of the native land; nowadays the girl is obedient to the will of powerful owners, who give her to “the bulging purses” from distant places.

Sooner or later, the horse of the dead Merkit warrior returns to his owner with sadness. The horseman’s father ritually sprays milk after the horse without rider, walking away, for that rider was killed. As Bair Dyshenov explained: “That way, a horse is set free. This is a ritual of ‘seeing-off the horse’. The white milk is sprinkled on the road so the way ahead is light.” In this kind and wise folk ritual lies the sense of the director’s message: he wishes his land and fellow countrymen only happiness and kindness.

Translated by Nourghiz Chekilova

Gulbara Tolomushova

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The Steppe Games (Talyn Naadan), Buryatkino, 2014
Color, 90 minutes
Director and Scriptwriter Bair Dyshenov
Producer Bair Dyshenov
Director of Photography Gleb Stepanov
Music Battulga Galmandah
Cast: Solbon Endonov, Bilicto Dambaev, Bayarma Boboeva, Chimit Dondokov, Oksana Lodoeva, Jargal Lodoev

Bair Dyshenov: Steppe Games (Talyn Naadan, 2014)

reviewed by Gulbara Tolomushova© 2015

Updated: 11 Jan 15