Dir: Guka OmarovaRuss-Kazahkstan-Fr-Ger. 2004. 90mins.

Don't be fooled by themisleading English title, already used by at least two slasher pics. Kazhakfeature Schizo is a terse but gripping, elegantly crafted slice ofrealist drama, with an edge of low-life thriller. Evoking the desperate mood ofsubsistence-level life in the newly-independent Kazhakstan of the early 1990s,the film marks an confident feature debut for Guka Omarova, who co-scriptedwith established Russian director Sergei Bodrov (she previously co-wrote his2001 feature Sisters).

Schizo won't do much for the tourist trade in the regionaround Kazhak city Almaty, as it highlights an austere geography and suggests acrumbling society existing on brutal Darwinian principles. But Schizowould be a tougher sell if not for its absorbing, no-nonsense narrative.Omarova's lucid vision will give Schizo a healthy festival life, and thefilm should appeal to niche buyers looking for hard-edged but approachablefare.

Fifteen-year-old Mustafa(Nusupbaev), aka Shiza or 'Schizo' - the nickname given him by his schoolmates- is first seen at a clinic with his mother (Eralibeva), who has taken him tobe checked out for psychological difficulties. Schizo, as far as we can see, isnot notably disturbed, just uncommunicative and unacademic. He is employed byhis mother's mobster boyfriend Sakura (Tabischev) to find bare-knuckle fightersfor illegal boxing matches, but Schizo recruits a young man who quickly meets abloody fate in the ring.

The hapless fighter entrustsSchizo with money to give to his girlfriend Zinka (Landina) and young sonSanzhik (Kanagat), who live in a flyblown shanty. Suspicious though Zinka is ofher visitor, she allows Schizo to become a permanent fixture in her life.Schizo meanwhile has plans to improve their life, and persuades his uncleZhaken (Baymukhanbetov) - a fragile-looking former fighter with a reputationfor standing up to bruisings - to sign up for a comeback match with a Mercedescar as the trophy.

The situation seems irrevocablyset for a grim conclusion: in fact, tough as the story gets, Omarova provides aredemptive coda that ends the story on a disappointingly soft note. Up tillthat moment, however, the film barely puts a foot wrong. On one hand, Schizoinvolves us in a sordid, but by no means unfamiliar underworld, while on theother it tenderly evokes the gradual, cautious romantic rapprochement betweenthe young but mature Zinka and the brutish but sensitive man-boy Schizo.

Non-professional leadNusupbaev has a fairly magnetic sullen presence, in the tradition of amoraloutsider adolescent, such as the characters in Louis Malle's Lacombe Lucienor more recently, Erick Zonca's Le Petit Voleur.

Meanwhile, it is the moreestablished and more energetic Landina who truly drives the duo's scenestogether, while Kanagat, as the five-year-old Sanzhik, adds lively, engagingsupport. Assorted plug-uglies flesh out the underworld personnel, and VictorSokhoroukhov - best known as the bald, smiling heavy in Alexei Balabanov's films- provides a droll cameo as a doctor more preoccupied with his own health thanhis patients'. Hasanbek Kidiraliev's razor-sharp photography takes a range ofgrim, run-down locales and stark landscapes, and gives them a striking, oftenunexpectedly handsome clarity.

Prod cos: CTB Film Company, Kazakh Studio Film, KinofabrikaGMBH, Les Petites Lumieres
Int'l sales:
Intercinema ArtAgency
Sergei Bodrov, SergeiSelyanov, Sergei Azimov
Guka Omarova, Sergei Bodrov
Hasanbek Kidiraliev
Prod des:
Talgat Asyrankulov
Ivan Lebedev
Main cast:
Olzhas Nusupbaev,Eduard Tabyschev, Olga Landina, Bakhytbek Baymukhanbetov, Viktor Sukhorukov,Gulnara Jeralievava, Kanagat Nurtay