Thursday, July 16, 2009

Aleksey Balabanov's Cargo 200 (2007)

Aleksey Balabanov's Cargo 200 (2007) is about an incident that happens in a farmhouse outside of Leninsk in Russia and the chain of events leading into and events arising out of the incident. Balabanov announces at the onset of his film that it is "based upon real events" prior to the credit sequence and during the final frames in small Russian print at the bottom of the screen, it reads that Cargo 200 took place during the second half of the year 1984. While being woefully ignorant of most intimate history from other countries, I cannot vouch for the accuracy of the depiction in the film of the real events nor can I claim to know exactly which specific events are real and fictional, despite doing some hasty yet focused research. The specificity of time, however, during which Balabanov sets Cargo 200 is larger in a sense and was more accessible for me to grasp and placing the film in historical context. The Soviet Union and Russia were in a transitional period. Soon, Mikhail Gorbachev would assume power, beginning the ending of the Iron Curtain, and the bloody and unsuccessful war with Afghanistan would be coming to an end (a good summation and introduction is here). The current economic climate in Russia is powerfully felt in Cargo 200, and the entire film feels like both a dawn and a dusk are in the background. This history is either the canvas for the art or the slave to it, as Balabanov takes a Pasolini-like approach to the subject matter--polarize through the extreme and make the normal seem abnormal and absurd. The result being disorienting, the imagery powerful, and the message resonating. Perhaps, also, very real.
Cargo 200 begins with brothers, Misha, an army colonel, and Artyom, a professor of scientific atheism at a university, eating dinner and talking on the balcony of Misha's flat. "Imagine," says Misha, "what is happening to the rest of the country." Misha is speaking of his current job: Cargo 200, twenty-six coffins, arriving from Afghanistan, housing Russian soldiers. Misha locates the relatives, delivers his heartfelt condolences, and makes arrangements to bury the coffins. His daughter Liza arrives with her fiance, Valera, and the two say hello, before having some tea. Valera and Liza have to get up early the next day for a trip, but Valera says he's got to go out for a bit. Valera is going to a disco and getting effed up, unbeknownst to Liza, and will be sharing the same road to Leninsk as Artyom, who is going to see his mother. Artyom's car breaks down on the road to Leninsk, and unable to flag anyone down, he walks to a farmhouse, where a sinister-looking older man stands at the gate. The sinister-looking older man says nothing to Artyom about help and cocks his thumb towards the farmhouse behind him. Inside the farmhouse, Artyom encounters a soldier, indicated by his blue-and-white shirt, cleaning a shotgun. He welcomes Artyom in for some dinner and vodka. Meanwhile, Valera is at the disco, getting drunk and running into Liza's girlfriend, Angelica. As the night wears on, the soldier, Alexi, his gardener, Sunya (a Russian corruption of his Vietnamese name), Arytom, and Valera, all become inebriated. Three remain sober: Angelica, who has left the dance with Valera to go to the farmhouse to get booze, Tonya, who can barely hide her contempt while cooking for the drunk men at the farmhouse, and the sinister-looking older man lingering outside of the farmhouse.Cargo 200 has the calculated appearance of its narrative rambling but it reveals itself in the end to be very well constructed and richly-filled. The dialogue between Alexi and Artyom is painfully funny, as Alexi asks the professor what he teaches: "scientific atheism." Artyom begins in his verbose and intellectual way to talk about Marxism and Leninism, but Alexi fuelled by a couple of glasses of vodka cuts to the chase: "Does God exist or not?" The country soldier reduces the city professor's profession to a simple yes-and-no question. The look of humility on Artyom's face is more telling than yes or no, and it's a nice touch of commentary from Balabanov. Balabanov throws the joke back at Alexi's face, however. Alexi manufactures alcohol on his property on which he wants to build supposedly a church, but his dream of church building is not a reality but one which appears out of his mouth when he has a lot to drink. The church dream stays alive but unbuilt with the help of Alexi's alcohol consumption, perpetually. Artyom fortuitously exits, with Sunya having fixed his car, and Valera arrives. After Alexi and Valera pass out at the farmhouse, the events of the film get much darker, surreal, and violent. The remainder of what follows in Cargo 200 should remain hidden but needless to say, the remainder is extremely charged, artistic, and often cruel. Cargo 200 is a non-nostalgic look at recent history in Russia, and I can say now, if it wasn't apparent before, Alexsey Balabanov is one of contemporary cinema's finest film makers. His film Brother (1997), starring Sergei Bodrov Jr., is an amazingly intense and bleak crime picture, fuelled by recent events and a very adept eye behind the camera. Balabanov would follow Brother with his surreal Of Freaks and Men (1998). Balabanov's take on America comes in Brother 2 (2000) with the seriously-intense War (2002) following. In a one-hundred-and-eighty-degree turn from Brother, Balabanov would get extremely playful and often nasty with his crime flick, Blind Man's Bluff (2005), only then to violently change direction again with the sentimental and affecting (and nostalgic) It Doesn't Hurt (2006). Balabanov's visual style is the very definition of unassuming and his compositions feel so organic. Perhaps a lack or minimal use of dramatic music or the use of such soft colors lull the viewer into complacency, which is often violently disrupted with powerful images of emotion, commotion, or violence. Cargo 200 shares his unique and compelling style and regardless of what happened on screen, I remained glued. There are some sequences within Cargo 200 which are unbelievably too fantastically surreal to be true or real. However, when I view the sequences, I am never full of doubt, as if I've been looped through the extreme back into normalcy...if that makes any sense. While Russian viewers I am certain will get more of the intimate history, viewers from all regions will be affected by Balabanov's art. Balabanov is a film maker that I will continue to follow, wherever his art will take him.

1 comment:

Mr.LargePackage said...

1984? I think both Jules and I were caught in a transitional period that year, and that is large and in charge.