Monday, November 22, 2010

Review: Ovsyanki

Called Le dernier voyage de Tanya in France and Silent Souls in America.

     You have to hand it to asian cinema. Nothing coming from America or Europe deals with the metaphysical and spiritual in the same way as the movies I've seen this year from Thailand, Korea, Japan, or Russia (I'm counting it as part of Asia). Well, A Serious Man, for example, was a pretty serious reflection on God and existence, but there's something unique in the feel of asian movies. They're often very calm and leisurely paced, and they have a sense of simplicity to them. Thai director, Apichatpong Weerasethakul said this about making the Palme D'Or winner Uncle Boonmee Who can Recall his Past Lives: "I wanted to strike a balance between the abstraction of death and a form of simplicity and naiveté, a childlike approach to cinema." The same ideas can be seen in Chang-dong Lee's excellent Poetry (another Cannes favorite) and to some extent in Ovsyanki, which played well at the Venice Film Festival.
     This is not to say that Ovsyanki isn't thematically complex. It tells the story of paper factory owner Miron (Yuriy Tsurilo) who enlists his friend Aist (Igor Sergeev) to help him with the funeral rituals for his deceased wife, Tanya. These include tying ribbons to her pubic hair, burning her on a pyre after dousing her with liquor, and "smoking," a tradition that involves Miron confiding (mostly sexual) details about Tanya with Aist. There are flashbacks to sexual encounters between Miron and Tanya and flashbacks to Aist's childhood and his relations with his father, a drunk amateur poet who seems like he came out of a Dostoevsky novel. Actually, it's all adapted from  Aist Sergeyev's novel Buntings, and it keeps a lot of voiceover as Aist talks about memory, death, love, water, and the slow disappearance of the customs of the Merya people. The part in the film's narration where Aist talks about "writing this book" (when what we are watching is obviously not a book) proves that it doesn't stray very far from its source material.
     And now I have to explain what the hell I meant with "simplicity."It has something to do with how in touch with the natural world Ovsyanki is; we keep returning to long shots of flowing water or of Aist's caged buntings (small birds). The desolate Russian landscape, with its gray forests and crumbling factories, is an integral part of Aist and Miron's existence. The world is also a bigger and more mysterious place in movies like Ovsyanki and Boonmee than in eastern cinema. And in the end, it all comes down to love and death. Love as in the scene where Miron bathes Tanya with a bottle of Vodka and then tenderly dries her off as she stands shivering in the cold air. Death as in Tanya's ashes being carried away by the Neya river.

Ovsyanki is very much like something by Tarkovsky; he too was very focused on nature and his films like Mirror, Andrei Rubliov, and Solaris are all spiritual meditations. Tarkovsky was also greatly influenced by Japanese cinema and especially Kenji Mizoguchi's Ugetsu monogatory and Hiroshi Teshigahara's Woman in the Dunes. And that brings my argument full circle; Russian cinema is just wordier "Asian" cinema. Other great things about Ovsyanki include the mournful music and the cinematography, which won an award at Venice.


1 comment:

  1. your opinion about the film is interesting. but do you think Miron's final action was ok to Aist?