Reviewed by: David Stanners

Some films defy straightforward explanation; Mamay is one of them. Its incoherent and intangible storyline forced half the audience from their seats within the first half hour. These people lack imagination.

Yes, Mamay is difficult: it's heavily cloaked in arcane mythology, outlining the cloudy boundaries between East and West; Europe and Asia; Christian and Muslim; Ukrainian and Tartar. But the emotional and ethereal qualities director Oles Sanin has instilled into his tale are highly memorable and more than make up for the convoluted narrative.

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Apparently based on a 16th Century folk tale common to both Ukrainian and Tartar traditions, you could be forgiven for leaving the cinema none the wiser. Umai, a Cossack warrior escapes a slave mine, where they are forced to work by their Tartar conquerors. His older brothers make their escape on horseback, while Umai has to run alongside, being chased by their relentless tyrants.

Eventually, he stops trailing the brothers in their pursuit of Christian freedom and ends up meeting a beautiful Tartar woman Omai - a white witch doctor of sorts. Healing his wounded body, she renames him Mamay, which means "nobody." Drawing close to both Omai and her daughter, Mamay falls in love, but trouble arises when her brother finds out about her little taboo with an enemy slave and tenuous parallels to Romeo and Juliet can be drawn.

Salin has made absolutely no concessions to the Western viewer. If you're not clued up on Ukrainian folklore, the chances are you'll be lost. Tales of the golden cradle, its song and magical powers of protection are all enmeshed in the rough fabric of a narrative. The two guilty brothers feel for their brother and constantly repeat, "If my younger brother finds us, I will abandon my plunder, lift him up with my sword and bear him away." Whatever the relevance of this is anyone's guess.

Rather than attempting to dissect the story, it is easier to surrender to the lyrical qualities, the poetry, exquisite cinematography and poignant music, letting the whole dream-like experience wash over you and transport you to another dimension.

Mamay is a poetic landscape, requiring an open mind and a worldly imagination. Taken as a coherent piece of storytelling it's a failure, but as a rich tableau of colour, music and traditional folklore, it's an original hit.

Reviewed on: 07 Sep 2004
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A mysterious pastiche of Ukrainian mythology and folklore mixed with a Romeo and Juliet style love story.

Director: Oles Sanin

Writer: Oles Sanin

Starring: Viktoriya Spesivtseva, Andrij Bilous, Sergei Romanyuk, Nazl Seytablayeva, Oles Sanin

Year: 2003

Runtime: 80 minutes

Country: Ukraine


EIFF 2004

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