One attraction of foreign films is the glimpse they provide of exotic lands. But after viewing a startling coming-of-age drama called Schizo, you probably won't call the travel agent to book ten days in Kazakhstan. Or ten minutes. As revealed by first-time director Guka Omarova and cinematographer Khasanbek Kydyraliyev, this recently individualized (if not quite liberated) republic of the former Soviet Union is a collection of desolate farmlands, filthy coal yards and abandoned building projects. It's also a lawless frontier where brutes prevail and the innocent are routinely murdered. Think Deadwood with vodka. Lots of vodka.
The hero of the story is a solemn, dark-eyed 15-year-old whose real name is Mustafa, but who's been dubbed "Schizo" because his mother, his abusive classmates and at least one shabby-looking doctor in a dirty gown all think he's crazy -- or at least slow-witted. He's portrayed by an uncommonly expressive schoolboy named Olzhas Nussuppaev, whom the filmmakers found in a Kazakh orphanage. By the time Olzhas is done working over our emotions (maybe without even knowing it), he's put in a "performance" every bit as memorable as the loyal son's in The Bicycle Thief or the abandoned Russian boy's in Kolya. The battered waif struggling to survive may be an ancient movie cliché, but when the tale is well told, it still rings with power.
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Schizo's sin consists of being poor and weak. His glory, although tainted, lies in becoming resourceful. Beaten up at school and handed a bottle of painkillers at the clinic, he falls under the spell of his mother's shady boyfriend, Sakura (Eduard Tabyschev), who takes him on as a recruiter for outlaw prizefights. Think you saw violence in Raging Bull or Million Dollar Baby? Mike Tyson would be appalled at the rules -- or the lack of them -- of boxing as contested in rural Kazakhstan. Bare of foot and knuckle, the largely unschooled fighters whale away at each other with fists, feet and heads. The blood flows freely, with no referee or ring doctor to intervene. When a man is knocked down, he's kicked half to death, back-alley style, then hauled off to recover in a concrete hallway. Or to die. The promoters are corrupt (there's a surprise), the boxers underpaid, the fights often fixed. God help us, there's even gambling.
If you smell a metaphor cooking on the stove, you're not alone: Clearly, the filmmakers equate this ruthless, mutant form of sport as the current state of Kazakh life itself, bloody in fang and claw, where the citizens are chattel and no one balks at eye-gouging. For Schizo, the only agenda is to survive by any means he can grab, and in the course of these 86 minutes, we watch him grow into it. Having absorbed parts of Sakura's cold cynicism and the fighters' blind courage -- he tries on shades and a smoldering cigarette -- he gets sharp at his job, serves a couple of days in jail and seems well on his way to becoming a first-rate thug himself.
But this is still a 15-year-old, and in his big saucer eyes we see a man-child who retains his affection for toy cars and soccer. For him, the turning point comes when a badly injured fighter asks him to deliver his meager purse to a poor woman in a shack on the edge of town. Once Schizo sets eyes on pretty Zina (Olga Landina), who's maybe in her early twenties, and her underfed son, Sanzhik (Kanagat Nurtay), real purpose awakens in him. Sensing a shared fate, he's now willing to cajole and scheme for them, too.
This portrait of a man in the making unfolds on rough terrain, and Schizo takes his lumps. But there's an underlying sweetness in it, even when the young hero gets involved in a stickup and runs afoul of the local Don Kings because they think one of his recruits -- his boozy but tough uncle Zhaken (Bakhytbek Baymukhanbetov) -- is a ringer. After all, Uncle Zhaken's the one who wins a broken-down Mercedes from the "champ." We also get a powerful dose of local color -- everything from shish kebab to crooked cattle auctions to easy sex -- that the Kazakh Tourist Board, if there is one, probably won't much like. But at bottom we are enthralled by a vivid, absolutely authentic turn by a young performer (let's not call him an actor just yet) who may never appear in another movie. This one's an uncompromising vision of a land in brutal torment, relieved only by a surprisingly upbeat denouement. Here is strong stuff, ably made.