Monday, August 22, 2011

To Russia Without Love


I'm more than excited to see Alexander Zeldovich's Mishen (aka Target; 2011), a film currently playing in a limited amount of Russian cinemas and trailering (with English subs) on  *youtube*

I'm not excited at the prospect of the film being re-made by an American studio, but this is going to happen because the premise is original. They call these things "re-imaginings", but fuck that!, they're the legalized theft of original ideas by artists needing a paycheck and lacking a unique perspective (hardly a crime in the US).

Imagine a painter "re-imagining" the 'Mona Lisa'? The fuck would be rightly hung and incinerated for his crimes.

According to a Russian source of mine, the script, by Vladimir Zorikin (author of the extraordinary novel 'The Queue', something I urge everyone to read), spent nine years writing and fine tuning Mishen. He previously wrote Zendovich's mind-bending 4 (2005) and Moscow (2000).

This review is from Screen Daily  (15th February, 2011):

French critics often use the term ‘UFO’ to denote bizarre uncategorisable and unexpected films - in which case Russian futuristic epic Target (Mishen) is a UFO on the Independence Day scale. This bizarre offering from veteran director Alexander Zeldovich will strike many as a folly, but it can justifiably be tagged as visionary, with a boldly conceived dystopian vision dressed in elegant visuals that build up a thoroughly conceived imagining of the near future - with an unapologetically philosophical spin.
Apt reference points might be Minority Report and Solaris, with side orders of The Matrix, Kubrick and even Fellini. The film deserves to acquire cult status at the very least, and while its more cerebral thrust might deter the straight sci-fi market, intelligent marketing could make it a niche hit with discerning audiences open to art-house/genre crossover.

The film is largely set in Moscow in 2020, a sleeker, shinier, CGI-enhanced version of the present. Future Russia is massively influenced by China, with a massive superhighway slicing the country, taking lorries direct from Guangzhou to Paris. And, as in the present, Russia society is divided between the poor and the outrageously wealthy. 

Zeldovich’s characters fall in the latter camp. Viktor (Sukhanov) is the middle-aged Minister of Natural Resources, who lives in luxury with his younger wife Zoya (Waddell). Able to afford the impossible, Viktor and Zoya head out on a journey to the Altai mountains where the super-wealthy can access the source of eternal youth -  an abandoned astrophysics facility named the ‘Target’, where they expose themselves to cosmic rays. 

Also in the party are Zoya’s brother Mitya (Kozlovsky), a flashy TV host; Nikolai (Kischenko), an alpha-male customs official; and Anna (Stoyanovich), hostess of a Chinese-for-beginners radio broadcast. Returning to Moscow, the group find they have what they asked for - but with not entirely happy long term results.

Massive in conception, the film is an elusive hybrid - less conventional science fiction than a philosophical contemplation of the human condition, good and evil, power, desire and sex (of which there’s a lot, between characters in various permutations). 

This is a very Russian film - which means that characters are partial to reciting Lermontov poems. But amid the philosophy, there’s some striking andspectacular future-world imagery, some bold, big-scale motorway action and even a run-in with Chinese gangsters.

An anomaly by Western standards, Target belongs in the great Russian sci-fi/art tradition of writers like Zamyatin and the Strugatsky brothers - not to mention of Tarkovsky. Sleeker and flashier than that great, Target nevertheless has some of the enigmatic Solaris magic, mixed with FX-era glitz, a combination it carries off with breathtaking flair.


In Sergei Loznitsa's Schastye Moe (aka My Joy; 2010), a Russian lorry driver, literally and figuratively, gets lost in wide open space. In his journey across the lawless Russian hinterland, he encounters corrupt cops, angry child prostitutes, dozens of slimy miscreants, and a nomadic old man whose future was destroyed by his fellow countrymen in the immediate wake of World War II.

Predictably, the film has been heavily criticized as propaganda by corrupt Russian authorities (pardon the oxymoron), and there have been efforts to rob the Ukrainian-born Loznitsa of credibility by citing the fact that he no longer lives in Russia; he now lives in Germany. Hardly an argument for illegitimacy.

Tonally, the film is dark and depressing, portraying a world where a raw version of roadside capitalism prospers. Viktor Nemets, who plays George (the driver), undergoes a moral gangrape of his dignity and trust as every encounter turns ugly or spirals into something potentially worse in a broader sense.  It's the broadening aspect that has irked some critics of the film. A number of segments are extremely violent and disturbing, and the putrid air of constant menace left me in a state of high anxiety.

The second half of the film involves a steep narrative shift in which George's fate echoes the fate of the viewer. We are suddenly deprived of our reliable safe point of view just as George is deprived of the little control he once possessed over his own destiny. At the time of first viewing this, I resisted this narrative shift and became frustrated with the film. In retrospect, I admire it for its bravery and truth. Loznitsa's message is that filth and corruption spreads like cancer and infects generations. Eventually, you're left with a society lacking a moral compass of any kind, and reciprocal abuse becomes the norm because it is modeled.

It is totally unsurprising that Russian reaction to the film has been brutal and condemning. Nobody likes the truth. These days, it is more out of fashion than ever.

This is a fine companion piece to Aleksey Balabanov's Cargo 200, another Russian film depicting truth with all its cum stains and ragged nose hairs. 


4 comments:

  1. jervaise brooke hamsterAugust 22, 2011 at 7:13 PM

    Phantom, the ugliest truth of all is that we are living in "THE TIME OF SEXUAL REPRESSION" and thats the number 1 reason for ALL the problems in the world today, thats right Phantom, eradicate all the sexual repression in the world and we would have a paradise here on earth with-in 20 years, guaranteed, instead of the hell-on-earth that we have got.

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  2. jervaise brooke hamsterAugust 29, 2011 at 12:27 PM

    I want to bugger Mary Woronov (in 1961 when the bird was 18, not as the bird is now obviously).

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  3. this stuff is book worthy goddamnit. almost too much good to handle. you SHOULD be more widely read; fucked if i know how...

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  4. jervaise brooke hamsterAugust 30, 2011 at 11:59 AM

    Too kind girl-dingo, too kind.

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