The Brag

Previewed: Russian Film Festival – August 21 to September 2, 2009

In Arts, Blog, Brag 325 (August 17), Film Reviews on August 18, 2009 at 11:18 am

Read on for our breakdown of this year’s Russian Resurrection Film Festival – what’s a must-see and why.

This is the sixth annual Russian Resurrection – and each festival has at least one treasure – and it’s almost always something you will never find again with English subtitles. It’s now or never kids!

This instalment kicks off Friday August 21 with Taras Bulba, followed by almost two weeks of films programmed – which is two weekends, for those of us who work silly hours during the week.

This year we’ve (p)reviewed the New Russian Cinema strand – there is also a Musical/Comedy Retrospective this year, in response to audience demands for more laffs.

Of the ten films in the New Russian program, we’ve reviewed six below. The others are:
We’re From The Future: a rite-of-passage time-travel drama
Ward No. 6: the latest film from director Karen Shakhnazarov (last year’s Vanished Empire), based on a story by Chekhov.
Soundtrack of Passion: billed as Russia’s first ever erotic thriller (!) and directed by Nikolai Lebedev (2007’s fantasy blockbuster Wolfhound).
Fedot the Hunter: children’s animation.



Hipsters (2008)
Vivid colours, flamboyant fashions circa Cry Baby, and musical to boot. Valery Todorovsky’s film uses hipster culture as a metaphor for social resistance in Cold War Russia.

Mels (Anton Shagin) starts off as a “square”, a member of the communist youth party who spends his Saturday nights terrorising hipsters in raids on their illegal parties, with his pretty but repressed commissar Katya. Until he meets “Polly” (Oksana Akinshina, from Lukas Moodysson’s Lilya 4 Ever), a ravishing hipster with a feisty attitude.

Gradually Mels transforms himself into “Mel”, by way of some new clothes and a saxophone. Not only does he win the girl, but he gains a whole new bunch of friends. But society is not sympathetic to hipsters – for most Russians, a saxophone is just one step away from a switchblade, and Charlie Parker is a cipher for American ideology.

Mel and Polly see their friends slowly succumb to conservative social mores – Fred cuts his hair, throws out his threads, and joins the diplomatic service; Bob is arrested for buying black market American Jazz records; Betsi is forced to leave Moscow; and Dryn is drafted into the army.

Polly falls pregnant, and the child turns out to be black – fathered by an American soldier, before she met Mel. The final straw comes when Fred returns from America and tells Mel the bad news: “There are no hipsters in America; if you walked down Broadway like that, they’d lock you up in the nearest psychiatric unit.”

The final scene is a montage of fashions throughout modern Russian history, starting from Hipster, which Todorovsky presents as the godfather of all dissent that came after it, from punks to hippies to ravers and grunge.

Hipsters uses the same energetic camera style as Todorovsky’s Vice, which was the hit of last year’s Russian Resurrection. The director reassembles many of the same cast, including the two leading men, Shagin and the handsome Maksim Matveev.

Taras Bulba
This two hour epic set in 16th century Russia/Ukraine/Poland, and based closely on Gogol‘s short novel, was controversial in Europe for its nationalist streak. The film was commissioned and partially funded by the Russian Ministry of Culture, and the director, although born in the Ukraine, is a member of the Russian Communist Party.

The film, released in tandem with the 200th anniversary celebrations of Gogol (a Ukrainian who wrote in Russian), also coincides with recent tensions between the Ukraine and Putin’s government. It presents Ukranians and Russians as one people united – something the government in Kiev takes exception to!

At the end of the day, it’s a fairly silly film, from its over-the-top acting, caricatured characters and pompous monologues, to its cheesy synth soundtrack. As one Russian journalist wrote, it makes Braveheart look like A Room With A View. It is, however, a fascinating insight into national myth – well for a foreigner, anyway! Gogol’s novel is generally credited with the articulation of the “Russian soul”.
For more on the film’s politics.

Wild Field
The photo used in the program really doesn’t do justice to this film: looking at the still, I would guess it was a quirky comedy, perhaps in the same vein as Tulpan. In fact, the woman in the dress appears for less than ten minutes of the film. She is the fiancée (or, as it turns out, not anymore) of our protagonist, a young doctor.

Filmed on the Kazakh Steppe, many of the static shots in Wild Field are ravishing – really breathtaking. It’s a slow-paced film that relies on the inherent romance of the steppe and the isolation of its protagonist – peppering this with a parade of eccentric locals: a man who has been drinking for 40 days, and consequently thinks he is dying; a young floozy who tries to seduce the doctor; a shepherd who has been struck by lightening, but comes back to life miraculously after being buried up to the neck overnight.
(There is another curious touch of magical realism – a stranger who watches the doctor from a distant hill, and seems to be able to move at a superhuman speed, so as to evade being confronted.)

Wild Field doesn’t necessarily make a whole lot of sense – why the doctor is living this impoverished, lonely life, pining for his fiancée; why certain characters and sub-stories are given so much time. The subtitles don’t help either – as is so often the case with Russian films, the English translation feels like it’s taken a creative tour through the Yahoo Babel Fish before being spat out the other end. It doesn’t matter. I really enjoyed this film. It reminded me of Euphoria, my favourite film of the 2007 Russian Resurrection.

Morphine (2008)
I was interested in this primarily because of its basis in the autobiographical stories of Mikhail Bulgakov – and who, having read Master and Margarita, wouldn’t want to know where all that whacked-out magic came from?

As it turns out, this is a fairly run-of-the-mill addiction film – like Requiem For A Dream (in its frank depiction of the ugly side of opiate addiction), but set during the Russian Civil War (c. 1917) – and the sex is less graphic. I’m not saying it’s bad, I’m just saying that perhaps all you need to know is that Bulgakov got quite addicted to morphine while working as a doctor in rural Russia. And he was quite the ladies man. I enjoyed it.

Nobody But Us
From the program: Evgeny Levaschov is a soldier in the Russian army fighting in the Tajikistan war of the 1990’s. Seriously wounded, he returns temporarily to civilian life where he meets and falls in love with Natasha. She is the woman of his dreams, the person he has been searching for all his life. But his timing could not be worse as he has to go back to the front again in just two short weeks. During these two weeks Evgeny resolves to take his camera back with him and document his experiences to show the war for what it is: a cruel and futile act of violence. He risks his new found happiness in love to set off on a journey which may be his last. Nobody But Us is a film about love and destiny, confronting the cruelty of war with moments of happiness in love. This is the first feature from Sergei Govorukhin, a military journalist who lost a leg while filming in Chechnya.

If you can get through the initial misgivings (cheesy music, appalling translations, confusing storyline) this film pays off. It’s not your average modern warfare flick – it is romantic, dreamlike, and tragic.

The story goes back and forth between Tajikstan, where Levaschov has returned to make his documentary on the war, and his remembered (brief) times with Natasha. He does not tell her (or his mother) that he is returning to Tajikstan – so their time together is ultimately the more tragic.

Dream sequences, understated performances and references to Master and Margarita – it’s not a must see, but I really enjoyed this film, and it confounded my expectations. Again, the choice of picture in the program is a little misleading.

Anyone who saw Andrei Kravchuk’s The Italian at the 2005 Russian Resurrection will probably be curious to see what he did next. Admiral is the absolute other end of the spectrum – a blockbuster, epic wartime romance. I loved it.

I can’t comment as to its historical merits – and even I if were more familiar with the history of the Russian Civil War, it’s not my national history to get picky about! But as a story and a film, Admiral is fantastic. It has the epic, all-conquering romance and visuals of a film like Titanic, with the added punch of presenting a fascinating lesser-known side to Russia’s revolution.

Aleksandr Vasil’evich Kolchak (Konstantin Khabenskiy, from the Nightwatch/Daywatch series) is a Rear Admiral in the Russian Navy during World War I; he falls in love with Anna Timireva, the wife of his junior officer and friend – at exactly the moment when revolution is breaking across Russia. The two are caught up in the tides of fate, swept apart and eventually brought back together.

Meanwhile, Kolchak rises to the rank of Supreme Commander of exiled Russian forces in Siberia during the Russian Civil War – before coming to a rather sticky end at the hands of the Reds.

Admiral grips you right from the first frames – its opening scenes of battle manage are imbued with more horror-tinged presentiment than most war films even attempt. Before you know it you have been swept up in a romance, and in no time at all the whole 124 minutes have passed and you have been through the Russian wringer.

In Summary:
The undercurrent in this year’s New Cinema program is the Russian propensity to engage with things 150%, whether it is love, patriotism, courage, morphine or vodka…

Admiral is the obvious must-see choice of the festival – something for everyone. For arthouse cinephiles, Wild Field is probably the obvious choice; for those wanting to investigate “The Russian Soul”, Taras Bulba; for an understanding of modern Russia, Hipsters and Nobody But Us.

I’ll be heading along to the Comedy and Musical Gems Retrospective to see how the Russians do satire.

Dee Jefferson
Arts Editor @ The Brag

In person at the cinema box-office
Phone 1300 306 776
(9.30am-5.30pm Weekdays, 9-11am Sat)
or, online
5 Film Pass = $70
(Excludes Opening Night)
Adult = $16.50
Concession = $14.00
Weekday Matinee = $12.00


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