Senator John McCain may have been testing the limits of hyperbole when he claimed in the presidential debates that gazing into Vladimir Putin’s eyes he saw a "K," a "G" and a "B," but Russia’s unforeseen and boorish display of military grandstanding in Georgia gave cause for both candidates to make "curbing Russian aggression" a serious part of their foreign policy discussions. A different sort of Russian aggression is at work in Cargo 200, Alexei Balabanov’s latest nasty piece of work, which makes its U.S. premiere at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts on Thursday, November 13.
Balabanov, working with producer Sergei Selyanov, has earned a reputation as Russia’s Quentin Tarantino—a populist auteur whose edgy, action-filled films dish their punches with formal polish and narratives of feel-good nationalism. But Cargo 200 presents a departure for the two. At a time when military parades are once again a fixture in Red Square and nostalgia for a pre-dissolution Russia is being stoked more than ever, Cargo 200 has garnered controversy in its native country for its unsentimental depiction of the era and brutal violence.
Set in 1984 and based on true events, Cargo 200 presents Russia as a dreary, mechanized wasteland of squalid apartment blocks, sprawling factories, busted cars and grey skies. The same state-sanctioned Euro-disco singles repeat ad nauseam on the radio and vodka seems to be in greater supply than clean drinking water. The title refers to the zinc-lined coffins that shipped the war dead back from the Afghan front, and the horrors of that off-screen conflict eventually come home to roost near the film’s finale.
Balabanov’s film is essentially a political critique couched in the familiar narrative of the abduction thriller. Angelika (a brave Agniya Kuznetsova), the daughter of a high ranking party officer, goes joy riding with her girlfriend’s cocky fiancé Valera and the two wind up drunk and stranded out in the country with some bumpkin distillers while making an vodka run. One of the yokels, Zhurov (played as a steely mix of Hannibal Lecter and Harvey Kietel’s bad Lieutenant by Aleksei Poluyan ), turns out to be a police captain with a crazy streak and taking a fancy to the stunned Angelika, kidnaps her.
The sordid details of Angelika’s captivity—and the seemingly limitlessness of Zhurov’s (and Balabanov’s) sadistic imagination—graphically make up the remainder of the film. In the meantime, Aneglika’s bumbling professorial uncle Artem (Leonid Gromov) half-heartedly attempts to put two-and-two together while failing to realize that he too had stopped at the same distiller’s just hours prior to his niece’s disappearance, while it remains unclear why Valera chooses to do nothing.
Using the graphic depiction of monstrous acts to indict a larger social monstrosity and force the audience to confront its complicity with that monstrosity is an old modernist hat trick—think Antonin Artaud’s theater of cruelty—that when handled with thoughtfulness and care can have profound and devastating effects, as in Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Salo (1975). Balabanov, however, wields his cudgel with a heavy hand (Zhurov has a bust of Felix Dzerzhinsky, the founder of the Soviet secret police, in his office; Artem’s Professor of Scientific Atheism is practically a talking head spewing hollow rhetoric) and his commentary on the fascism of everyday life in Soviet Russian is about as subtle as the libretto of a socialist realist musical.
"I show what filth we lived in," said Balabanov in a recent Wall Street Journal article about Cargo 200, and in that respect his film is spot-on. Like Kim Ki-Duk, another filmmaker who has wrought strong stuff out of revenge narratives and doesn’t shy away from spectacular violence, Balabanov knows how and when to wrench our stomachs. But in lighter hands, perhaps those of the Coen Brothers, his grisly tale might have made some more room for its characters—however damaged—to shine through the grit.
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