The Old Man (Shal): Film Review

Erbulat Toguzakov in 'The Old Man'
Although a bit sentimental, this Kazakh survival yarn engages throughout.

Based on Ernest Hemingway’s "The Old Man and the Sea," Kazakhstan’s Oscar submission is a passable old-school adventure story.

The Old Man (Shal), Kazakhstan’s submission for the best foreign-language Oscar, may not be that nation’s best film this year (that honor should go to, in this reviewer’s opinion, Emir Baigazin’s Harmony Lessons),but it’s a choice well calibrated to appeal to that category’s committee. After all, it shares several elements with many previous winners and nominees: a senior-citizen protagonist, a central grandfather-and-son relationship, literary pedigree (it’s adapted from Ernest Hemingway’s novel The Old Man and the Sea), and form (director Ermek Tursonov’s drama Kelin was itself Kazakhstan’s Oscar submission in 2009). Moreover, it has accessible, old-fashioned storytelling that wouldn’t frighten even the most skittish Kazakh horse. If only it had a Holocaust angle, then it could be a lock for final-five nomination.

The titular old man is Kasym, played by veteran actor Erbulat Toguzakov, who appeared in the recent Baikonur. A shepherd living on the remote steppes of Kazakhstan who loves international soccer, his flock, his horses and his family, roughly in that order on most days, Kasym is met in the early scenes bickering with his grandson Erali (Arynbek Moldakhan) who would rather play computer games than watch football or, indeed, herd sheep. Erali’s mother (Diana Mukisheva) tries to mediate between them, and it’s clear that there’s real but unexpressed tenderness between the old man and 12-year-old Erali, but then generation gap is hard to bridge.  

When Kasym sets off with a neighbor’s herd and his own flock, each one named after a famous soccer player, for winter grazing on the steppe, a storm brews up and Erali becomes concerned about grandpa’s safety. He has good reason to be as not only is the weather a problem, but a pack of wolves, led by a regal bitch with a scar across her face, is out for revenge against humans in general having tussled earlier (and won) with a hunting party shooting illegally out of season.

Following if not the letter than certainly the spirit of Hemingway’s source text (which was about a fisherman beset by sharks), Kasym uses every trick up his experienced sleeve to survive the elements and outwit the wolves. They are a wily lot who collectively put on one of the great displays of vulpine acting, on a par with the best fang-barring performances in Game of Thrones and the many adaptations of Jack London’s White Fang. Respectful of the danger they pose but determined to survive, at one climactic point Kasym goes head-to-head with one fury foe, the camera cutting in for snarling close-ups on the eyes of both man and beast, a visual cliché that’s a hoot to see resurrected.

In regards to The Hollywood Reporter's recent report about how much danger animals are exposed to on film sets even under the supervision of the American Humane Association, viewers might well wonder how much they should trust a subtitle at the end of The Old Man that reassures that no animals were harmed in its making. The sheep certainly look like they’re having a rough time of it during the wolf attacks, but perhaps prosthetics or trained stunt sheep were used during production.

Likewise, Toguzakovalso seems to be taking a battering here, and even if doubles were used for the more challenging plunges down snowy cliffs and wolf-fighting scenes, it’s still an admirably physical performance. Elsewhere, the acting is a little more stunted and gestural, but even then that sort of fits the simplicity of the story. Director Tursonov has flair for the action sequences and knows when to crank up the sentimental score at just the right time to hit the requisite plangent tone. Dialogue throughout is a mixture of Russian and Kazakh.

Production: Kazakhfilm Studios, in association with Office 111-t
Erbulat Toguzakov, Arynbek Moldakhan, Isbek Abilmazhinov, Ondasyn Besikbasov, Erzhan Nusipakynov, Oleg Poltoratshikh, Diana Mukisheva
Ermek Tursunov
Ermek Tursunov, based on the novel “The Old Man and the Sea” by Ernest Hemingway”
Producers: Alexander Vovnyanko
Executive producers: Serik Saribaev
Director of photography: Murat Aliyev
Production designer: Bopesh Zhandayev
Costume designer: Elena Rubanova
Editor: Dmitri Slobstov
Music: Kuat Shidebayev
No rating, 102 minutes.

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