by Lucius Shepard
April 17, 2006
By the time this sees print, the summer movies will be in full-on gargantuan bloat, diplodicus-sized blockbusters lumbering through the multiplexes in a confused herd, searching for their screenplays, deafening one and all with their digitized grunts, leaving piles of waste in their wake . . . and so the column is intended this month to be a metaphorical hit of Oust or Febreeze (birch-scented to correspond with its Russian theme), something to disperse those Cretaceous vapors and remind us that there are films not inspired video games, rare though they may be.
During the post-glasnost period, the Russian cinema has sputtered along in semi-secret, at its best producing a number of tight, low-budget crime films and a handful of masterpieces: the Stalin-era epics Burnt By the Sun and Durga; the post-glasnost naturalism of The Return; the magical realist films Prisoners of the Mountain and Repentance, to name a few. The genre, however, has been represented mainly by lame-ish fantasies, and, until recently, Russia's last distinctive genre picture was George Danielya's 1986 hilarious dystopian comedy Kin-Dza-Dza, which, despite its minimalist production values, also qualifies as a masterpiece in terms of writing and general execution, begging to be judged alongside such pictures as Gilliam's Brazil and Luc Besson's Dernier Combat.
Heavily influenced by the satire of the late Robert Sheckley, Kin-Dza-Dza tells the story of two schlemiels, Dyadya Vova and Skripach, who are confronted by an alien while, respectively, going to buy pasta and returning a violin to its owner. When they push a button on a device the alien carries, they are transported to the planet Plyuk. The galaxy in which Plyuk is situated, Kin-Dza-Dza, is essentially an interstellar slum, and Plyuk itself is a post-apocalyptic desert, the ruins of skyscrapers and carnivals and so forth poking up from the sands. The beings who dwell there resemble humans and can read thoughts, even those of Dyadya Vova and Skripach, a condition that has pared down their spoken language to a very few words (since there is no subtitled DVD available, this assists the non-Russian speaker in watching the movie—trust me, a knowledge of Russian, albeit helpful, is not necessary to enjoy this film; subtitles are, however, downloadable online). Though their society has been reduced to the barbaric, with a leader of sorts who spends his days playing infantile games in a pool, they are technologically advanced, having spaceships, bathysphere-shaped fliers that whiz about like helicopters, telephone service between planets (at one point, Dyadya Vova phones home), bizarre underground factories maintained by savages, and yet what Plyukians covet above all things are ordinary household matches. The most salient bit of technology in their possession is a device that allows one to determine to which group (a distinction something like that of race) a Plyukian belongs by pointing it at an individual, whereupon one of two lights switches on: a green light, signifying "Good," or an orange light, signifying "Bad."
The plot of Kin-Dza-Dza revolves about Dyadya Vova-and-Skripach's attempts to return to Earth, but the actual focus of the picture is on the problems facing Russia during those days before the break-up of the Soviet Union, anticipating a grim Plyukian-like future. Now, some twenty years later, we are presented with a new Russian film (a series of films, actually) that, although no masterpiece, is nevertheless of significance and looks forward to a Russian future that, while still uncertain, offers a glint of promise. I'm speaking, of course, of Day Watch, the second in the "Watch" trilogy, directed by Timor Bekmambetov and based on the novels of Sergei Lyukanenko, who also plays the mage Ruslan in the movie.
To reset, in the first film (it is, by the way, impossible to comprehend the second without having seen the first), we meet Anton (Konstantin Khabensky), an everymannish member of a group of "Light" wizards, vampires, witches, et al, who form the titular Night Watch. They patrol Moscow during the evening hours (often in a jet truck) and keep tabs on the opposed yet similarly constituted group who serve the Dark and keep watch over the day. This is a condition of a truce negotiated a thousand years before, a truce that threatens to be broken by the emergence of two "Great Ones," Anton's foster son, the young vampire, Yegor, who will come into his full powers on the occasion of his next birthday, and the beautiful blond Svetlana (Mariya Poroshina, previously featured in the Sopranos-like Russian crime drama Brigade), a virginal white witch under a curse. Yegor has been taken by the Dark group, the Day Watch, and is being trained for an evil destiny under the guidance of the black magician Zabulon. Both groups have the power to enter "the Gloom," an alternate reality wherein Moscow exists as a deserted ruin.
The opening of Day Watch takes us back to the days of Tammerlane and, in an impressive CGI sequence, shows that same warrior penetrating a city that is half maze, half fortress, intending to steal the Chalk of Fate, with which it is possible, literally, to rewrite history and reverse the flow of time. In accomplishing this feat, he demonstrates the uses to which the chalk can be put. We flash forward in time to a year after the events of the first film. Svetlana and Anton are now partnered, engaged in patrolling the streets of Moscow as part of the Night Watch. When several Dark vampires are killed under mysterious circumstances, Anton is framed for the murders and must direct most of his energies to escaping the vengeance of the Day Watch. Meanwhile, the day of Yegor's majority is approaching and Svetlana, too, is coming into her full powers. Should the two of them meet and blood be shed, the ancient war will be resumed.
If all this seems a tad confusing, it is. As a director, Bekmambetov has a considerable ways to go before achieving a lucid narrative style and the script has a tendency to devolve into a mish-mash of pointless action sequences and equally pointless yet impressive CGI scenes. In one such, a dog-collared vampire woman drives her red Mazda up and around the sides of a Moscow apartment building at a height of over a hundred feet, all to no express purpose save, perhaps, character development; in another, two trucks play chicken and the smaller one tunnels through the other. Relentless product placement and a soundtrack that incorporates a godawful Russian MTV-style metal band further assist in blurring both the characters and storyline.
Sounds like a Hollywood picture, no?
For American audiences, long accustomed to an abundance, often a superfluity, of exposition, Bekmambetov's sketchy narration will be a hard row to hoe; but by the time the movie has its North American release, Fox Searchlight will have overseen a new edit, cleaned up the subtitles, and, hopefully, a happy balance will have been struck between lucidity and pacing.
The first hour or so of Day Watch plays like a combination buddy movie/romantic comedy (the picture is generally brighter in tone and less horrific than Night Watch) and mainly consists of Svetlana, who is secretly (she thinks) in love with her partner, and Anton patrolling together. While Anton covertly (he thinks) searches for his son and for the Chalk, which he hopes can save him (it turns out to be doing duty beneath a restaurant blackboard upon which the cook writes his daily specials), Svetlana tries to cover up the evidence that he is doing so. At one point, the movie takes a humorous and erotic turn when Anton has to switch bodies with another Night Watch agent, Olga (the owl-woman from the first picture), and thus is forced to deal with Svetlana woman-to-woman. But things grow increasingly chaotic, the plot—a thin one, as is often the case with second parts of trilogies—disappears in a maelstrom of event and special effects, and suddenly we are in the midst of the big finish, Yegor's birthday party, attended—I'm told—by a number of actual Moscovite celebrities (apparently, the Dark side stands in for Scientology in Russia). During this lengthy set piece, Anton is poisoned, the Great Ones are brought together, everybody discos, and Yegor uses a Russian-style yo-yo as a weapon of mass destruction, eventually reducing Moscow to the ruin we have previously seen in the Gloom. Will Svetlana be able to neutralize Yegor? Will the Chalk of Fate, which spends a good bit of time rolling about the floor under the feet of the celebrants, be employed to good or evil effect? You'll have to tune in to find out.
What distinguishes these movies from the Hollywood movies they obviously seek to ape is the endearing quirkiness of their imagery (deadly yo-yo, Chalk of Fate, owl-woman, a parrot morphing into a rock n' roller in a limo, etc.) and their unique energy. Set amid the omnipresent dinginess and dilapidation of a Moscow still suffering its post-Soviet hangover, plagued by ruthless mafiyas and a shaky economy, the film gives us a sense of the vital new city bubbling up from beneath this particular Gloom. Though the filmmaking is derivative, quoting liberally from Terry Gilliam, The Matrix, and Tarkovsky, and the source material is, ho hum, another battle between Good and Evil, Day Watch revels in its influences. It's as if Dostoyevsky, Marilyn Manson, and Roger Corman were collaborating behind the scenes. Even if you lose track of the plot, if you just relax, you may find that having to watch closely and to figure out what's happening and where the picture is going to be a pleasant experience—more pleasant, at any rate, than the dimension of bored lost-ness one enters during a viewing of abominations such as Underworld 6: The Engorging; the latest house-tenanted-by-evil-spirit goreapalooza (I believe it's called An American Haunting, implying that all previous hauntings have been unwholesomely un-American); or Final Destination 13: We're Not Kidding—This Is Really It!. Chances are if you were a fan of Night Watch, you'll enjoy the sequel; if you weren't, Day Watch probably won't change your mind about the series. But the fact remains that for all his directorial shortcomings, Bekmambetov has breathed new life into a very old story, and the largest question attaching to the Watch trilogy is whether or not the third film, Dusk Watch, shot in English, featuring American actors and using Hollywood script writers, will lose its creative spark in translation.
I'd be remiss if I failed to give a shout out to the H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society's The Call of Cthulhu, a film based on one of Lovecraft's most famous stories. Written prior to the advent of the "talkies," it has now been brought to the screen in the style of a classic Twenties silent movie, with a haunting original score. Utilizing a mix of modern and vintage camera techniques, the HPLHS has created the most faithful Lovecraft adaptation yet. The cultists of the Louisiana bayous, the non-euclidean geometry of R'lyeh . . . it's all there. Forty-seven minutes (the DVD has over an hour of extras) of HP Lovecraft, as the man himself might have imagined it on film, a period spectacle that took eighteen months to produce and provides title cards in twenty-four languages (including Catalan, Galician, Gaelic, and Luxembourgish) so as to appeal to Lovecraft fans around the globe. And appeal it should, to all fans of fine fantasy . . . as should the other films mentioned, constituting an uncommon break in the weather of bad movies that has lately overtaken us, doubtless a by-product of some global deficiency, a new ice age, perhaps, to which we now, unfortunately, must return.