Three Russian Discoveries From the Moscow Film Festival

© Art Pictures Studio/Lookfilm Studio
© Art Pictures Studio/Lookfilm Studio
Photo of Tom Birchenough
6 July 2017

Buy Me, A Bottomless Bag, and Thawed Carp provide a window into the state of film in the Putin era.

You always come to the Moscow International Film Festival (MIFF) hoping for a snapshot of the best of new Russian cinema. It can prove rather a random process, though: attracting local talent into the main MIFF competition program is always a challenge. Many producers who hope to sell their films abroad prefer a premiere at the Czech Republic’s Karlovy Vary festival, which attracts critics and buyers in a way Moscow has not for a long time.

Quirky selection

It helps, too, that Karlovy Vary also allows a Russian premiere at the Kinotavr national film festival, a fun experience down on the Black Sea Riviera at the beginning of June. So to find three Russian films in this year’s MIFF competition – a strand that just doesn’t have the impact of similar programs at the big three “Class A” festivals – must count as something of a success. And a quirky selection it proved: two curiosities and a crowd-pleaser.

“Buy Me” | © Art Pictures Studio/Lookfilm Studio

I can’t surely have been alone in wondering what happened to Vadim Perelman since his acclaimed House of Sand and Fog back in 2003; there was The Life Before Her Eyes four years later, of course, but then silence… . It turns out that the Ukrainian-Canadian director has been working in Moscow for most of this decade, getting a couple of popular television mini-series under his belt.

MIFF was the first chance to see Perelman’s first Russian-language feature Buy Me (pictured at top), and for fans of his early work, what a disappointment it proved. With a title like that, the fact that it was a prostitution drama came as little surprise.

Too flash

The subject has become very familiar in film depictions of Russia over three decades of dramatic social change: Pyotr Todorovsky’s Interdevochka, from 1989, was one of the finest depictions of the mood of early perestroika, anchored as it was in an acutely felt sense of time and place.

Buy Me lacks anything of the kind: its action could be taking place anytime between the 1990s and the present day. After a largely redundant opening set in the Emirates, its three heroines set out to make their futures in Moscow (a strange echo of Vladimir Menshov’s 1980 Oscar-winner Moscow Does Not Believe in Tears, perhaps). But Perelman’s world of flash nightclubs is so unoriginal, it hurts more than the pain of his film’s tragic conclusion. If Perelman was aiming for the mainstream, he missed. You always wonder where a film is going to end up: with Buy Me, it’s surely television.

“The Bottomless Bag” | © Rustam Khamdanov Studio

Which certainly will not be the case with Rustam Khamdanov’s The Bottomless Bag, a festival favorite if ever there was one (it took the runner-up award, the Jury Prize, at MIFF). In cinema, Khamdanov is only really known for his 1991 Cannes contender Anna Karamazoff, after which he practically disappeared, working much more as a visual artist.

“Rashomon” effect

You can see that element in every black and white frame of his new work, based on Japanese writer Ryonosuke Akutagawa’s story In the Grove. That was, of course, the source of Kurosawa’s Rashomon, but Khamdanov delivers something very different, a compendium of stories framed in a Scheherazade-like narrative that draws heavily on the Russian visual arts tradition.

If non-Russian viewers are puzzled by much of what they see on screen, just watching the film’s glorious images is captivating enough. Expect Khamdanov to be packing this Bag for many a foreign festival jaunt.

“Thawed Carp” | © Kinocluster

Vladimir Kott’s Thawed Carp was the last Russian film in the MIFF competition, and what a pleasure to find a movie that is actually going to find and win over a popular audience!

It’s not entirely original in its setting in the deprived Russian provinces, but the tragedy of that environment is more than leavened by the comedy of its plot development, as well as some superb ensemble playing. I don’t think Thawed Carp will prove so digestible outside Russia, even though it’s richly flavored with that old chestnut, the Russian soul. But for a taste of Russia today, this Carp was a more than satisfying festival dish.

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