Georgii Shengeliia: Flash.ka (Flesh.ka, 2006)
reviewed by Fiona Björling© 2007
Director Georgii Shengeliia was born in Moscow in 1960 and graduated from Marlen Khutsiev's workshop at VGIK (The All-Union State Institute for Cinema) in 1988. Since 1990, Shengeliia has directed some nine feature films typically classified as thrillers, criminal dramas, or comedies. These films include The Big Exchange (Meniali, 1992), The Restless Archer (Strelets neprikaiannyi, 1993), The Classic (Klassik, 1998), The Garbage Collector (Musorshchik, 2001), and Runaway Skidding (Neupravliaemyi zanos, 2004). Shengeliia's films have on the whole been popular with film audiences while critics have not been so impressed. The Big Exchange and The Garbage Collector have both been awarded international prizes.
The latest film Flash.ka is classified as a thriller. It opens in typical high-tech style: the screen is divided into several panels where money is being counted, genre-typical synthetic music with a low and ominous beat signals suspense, and we follow a yellow car and a twenty-second countdown to a car bomb explosion. Presumably the title with its dot-spelling of the word “flashka” is calculated to convey the fast-moving world of a modern thriller.
The film has two settings: a financial investment company in a shining modern Moscow and the countryside Moshkino some 350 kilometers to the northwest of Moscow on the banks of the river Unzha. From the beginning, when the main character, Andrei (Il'ia Shakunov), lies sleepless at 4:29am in his sterile and fashionable penthouse apartment beside his glamorous and frigid wife, and then emerges into the night in a home-knitted blue cardigan and slippers, the film signals its second theme: nostalgia for life in the country, away from the hyped-up life of the modern metropolis. It is around this contrast that most of the characters are lined up as black and white types, too stereotyped to be interesting. Viktoriia (Ekaterina Guseva), for example, is Andrei's stony, immaculately groomed, and career-minded wife. She is hard and cruel and despises her husband's sensitivity, telling him in no mean terms: “I made you what you are [...] you are nothing more than my appendage.” One wonders why Andrei is married to such an obviously bitchy woman. It is this taunt, however, that sets the story in motion. Provoked by his wife, whom he has just discovered in his bed with an influential member of the company, Andrei decides to make off with the flash memory card containing 320 million in as yet unlaundered dollars. Suddenly wielding a gun, Andrei turns gangster and kidnaps the ambitious computer expert Igor' (Evgenii Stychkin) and escapes from the building with the “flashka.” There follows an obligatory car chase with tire-screeching, collisions, and dramatic music, and Andrei and Igor' finally emerge unscathed on the road to Moshkino. Here the first part of the film comes to an end and the film switches style.
Now follows a kind of road-movie, endearing in parts, as Andrei and Igor', pursued by a fleet of yellow helicopters, make their way to Andrei's secret and newly-built country house, where he hopes to elude pursuit and enjoy nature. The film focusses on the two different male characters and the relationship between them. Andrei is tall with dark shaggy hair; he has “honest” blue eyes, is thoughtful, and quite at home in the country; he longs for his new home and his friend Lekha who has helped him build it. Igor', by contrast, is short and slim, his blond hair closely cut around his childish face. Igor' is dressed immaculately and appears frightened of being anything less than one hundred percent correct. He fastens his safety-belt as soon as he sits in the car; on arriving in the country he professes to be scared stiff of the dog, Confucius, who greets him with a bark and an enthusiaistic wag of his tail; soon thereafter Igor' inquires where he can wash his underwear, which, he points out, he has been wearing for more than twenty-four hours! The role is exaggerated but it provokes some warm humor and at times turns into outright farce, as when Igor' tumbles from a wood pile when hanging up his underwear to dry. The climax of this—psychological—part of the film is when Igor' is persuaded to take his wobbling place in front of Andrei in a canoe. Just as Igor' knows everything about computers, so he knows—or pretends to know—nothing about life in the country. Once he has found the rhythm of the canoe paddle, however, he delivers an enthusiastic speech to Andrei about the wonders of this new life in the country and the sterility of his former life in front of the computer. In retrospect it will turn out that all his country incompetence has merely been a cover-up—a cover-up that Andrei falls for.
In the meantime, the chase is on and Viktoriia, upset and chastened, dressed in a thick sweater and jeans jacket, with her hair tied demurely on her neck, sits in an old peasant woman's cottage to await the capture of her husband. Her new role is not convincing. As the chase picks up and helicopters tear across the countryside, the film once again takes a sharp turn. Gone is the comedy and the friendship-in-the-country theme as the character of Igor' is suddenly transformed into a villain, quite capable of violence towards his canoe partner. The film ends with betrayal and bodies littering the countryside. All is not put right and this is not a thriller with a happy ending where evil is routed and good comes out on top.
The problem with the film is that it does not hang together. For a 2006 thriller, it has to be said that the pace is extraordinarily slow and the story utterly straightforward. If suspense is the basic marker of the thriller genre then Flash.ka does not have it. But perhaps the film was not intended to be a thriller at all, the intrigue serving merely as a structure on which to hang a succession of episodes, not least being the scenic sequences of the beautiful Russian countryside. The film is most successful in the middle section, which follows Andrei and Igor' as they fumble to form a relationship. But, just as the film does not work as a thriller, neither does it work as a drama. The characters are not subtle enough. Even the two main male characters, who act well, are not allowed to develop, but instead switch roles inconsistently. Andrei is thoughtful and longs for the country but suddenly draws a gun and acts like a villain; Igor' is convincing as a metropolitan nincompoop in the country but turns out—with no clue given to the viewer—to have been playing another role all along.
Perhaps the point of the film is to disavow the modern world of big finance and dirty money by contrasting it with the serenity of the Russian countryside on lines reminscent of Soviet village prose? In an interview, Shengeliia has spoken of the inspiration of “this glorious countryside” (divnaia priroda): “When I discovered this fantastic place in the Kostromskaia Region on the river Unzha, I decided to film this story. I simply fell in love with the countryside.” But as a statement of the value of a life away from modern big business, the film is not convincing. The character who stands for the positive value of country life is Andrei's friend Lekha (Andrei Tashkov); a former investigator for the procurator's office, with pretentions to intelligence and philosophizing, he has taken up life in retreat to live ecologically on the fruit of the land. But Lekha is superior, cynical, and intolerant, and his character is mannered and predictable. The old peasant woman (Valentina Ananyna) digging up potatoes in Moshkino, where Andrei and Viktoriia used to stay in the days of their courtship, plays her good and honest part but without depth or surprises. There is quite simply no originality and a fair amount of sentimentality in the theme of retreat to an idyllic life in the country.
In conclusion, let me say that this is not a critics' film, but perhaps Shengeliia's Russian audiences will find it pleasant and entertaining. And if the story of the film is inconsistent and unsophisticated—in terms of plot and character—it might appeal to those who prefer old-fashioned thrillers, easy to follow and with far less violence than a typical contemporary thriller.
Lund University, Sweden
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Kokhriakova, Svetlana. Interview. “Georgii Shengeliia: ‘Otets proshelsia po vsem klassikam. Ili eto klassiki po nemu proshlis'.'” Kul'tura (30 November – 6 December 2006).
Flash.ka, Russia, 2006
Color, 105 minutes
Director: Georgii Shengeliia
Scriptwriter: Aleksei Timm
Cinematography: Aleksei Naidenov
Composer: Andrei Baturii
Cast: Il'ia Shakunov, Ekaterina Guseva, Evgenii Stychkin, Andrei Tashkov, Aleksandr Vasilevskii, Oleg Zhdanov, Valentina Ananyma
Producers: Georgii Shengeliia, Sergei Zernov, Mikhail Mikots
Production: Vox Video, Flash Entertainment, Center for National Cinema, with support from the Federal Agency for Culture and Cinema
Georgii Shengeliia: Flash.ka (Flesh.ka, 2006)
reviewed by Fiona Björling© 2007