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(2005) *** Unrated
86 min. Picture This! Entertainment. Directors: Gulshad Omarova, Guka Omarova. Cast: Olzhas Nusuppaev, Eduard Tabyschev, Olga Landina, Bakhytbek Baymukhanbetov, Viktor Sukhorukov.

Guka Omarova's assured first feature Schizo is a noir forced out into the sunlight. Its hero lives in a typically tragic noir situation: he's a little off in the head, and his coffers are empty: in other words, classically prone to the allure of criminal capitalization.

Set in early '90s Kazakhstan, Schizo follows a nearly fifteen-year-old boy named Mustafa (but nicknamed "Schizo") as he circles and finally penetrates adulthood. Olzhas Nussuppaev plays "Schizo" with a mysterious, roiling sullenness; though he appears blank at times, he's open to opportunity and sensitive to injustice, especially when he's subject to it. A lapdog to his single mom's criminal boyfriend, Sakura (Eduard Tabishev), Schizo rounds up human punching bags for an underground boxing syndicate, but the mortal exploitation he enables begins to eat away at what's left of his conscience.

Schizo is decidedly anti-heroic, but nevertheless gives the film a strong rooting interest as he grapples with moral choice and getting what he deserves out of life, including an appealingly unconventional relationship with the widow (Olga Landina) of one of the boxers, and her plucky son. The widow is hardly a fully fleshed-out character—at times, her choices are inscrutable—but mostly Schizo gets it right, as with Mustafa's alcoholic uncle: his even more remote existence includes the theft of remote power lines for black-market resale. No matter how desperate the noir anti-hero, there's always someone more desperate waiting to be used.

Cinematographer Khasan Kydyraliyev is equally adept at sprawling landscapes and intimate details. The film opens with a long, long shot of Mustafa getting motorbike lessons from Sakura in a field: a big and apathetic world envelops these small-time dreamers. Blood on the boxing-ring mat, observed in close-up, gets impassively wiped away, a metaphor for the misspent life's blood of most of the characters. Unsentimental performances and a distinct flavor for time and place mark Omarova a director to keep both eyes on.

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