Vladimir Kott: Mukha—The Fly (Mukha, 2008)

reviewed by Olga Mesropova© 2008

Mukha is the debut feature film by 35-year-old Vladimir Kott, who previously directed several television serials, including NTV's Family Exchange (Rodstvennyi obmen, 2005) and Channel One's eight-episode Hunter (Okhotnik, 2006). According to the director, Mukha—The Fly is about his own thirty-something generation, a cohort that Kott characterizes as “infantile” and “irresponsible” (Chistikova). Interpreted from this perspective, the film offers a broader metaphor for individual self-discovery and personal growth in today's Russia. With more than a hint of melodrama, Mukha's narrative framework involves multiple threads that ultimately stem from a portrayal of a teenage girl's surrogate family and her relationship with the man who might be her biological father.

Mukha's plot is relatively straightforward. Fedor Mukhin (Aleksei Kravchenko), a womanizing, long-haul truck driver, receives a telegram in which a woman called Mariia declares her love for him and asks him to drive immediately to her home town of Barabash. Although he does not seem to recall who Mariia is, Fedor takes off for Barabash only to discover upon his arrival that Mariia has just passed away. As he is about to depart from Barabash, Fedor learns that Mariia has bequeathed to him all her earthly possessions, including a teenage daughter named Vera (played by Aleksandra Tiuftei). Vera, who bears Fedor's last name, Mukhina (nicknamed Mukha, hence the title of the film), is the town's female hooligan who has a penchant for pyromania. Just prior to Fedor's arrival in Barabash, Vera was arrested on charges of arson and assaulting a local tycoon. Presented with the choice of either allowing the girl to be sent to jail or paying off the tycoon, Fedor makes the decision to come to the aid of his “newly-found daughter.” Since he has no cash on hand, Fedor decides to stay in Barabash and wait for his truck driver comrades to wire him the requisite funds. In the interim he finds work in the town, first as a driver of a septic service truck, and subsequently as a physical education instructor at the local high school. He also moves into Vera's and her deceased mother's house.

Sharing narrative (and in part, visual) tropes with such seminal perestroika era films about “difficult” teenagers as Mikhail Tumanishvili's Avariia—Cop's Daughter (Avariia—doch' menta, 1989), Isaak Fridberg's Doll (Kukolka, 1988), as well as Juris Podnieks's documentary Is it Easy to be Young? (Vai viegli but jaunam?, 1987) the tension of the father-daughter relationship ultimately shapes the compositional framework of Kott's film. Mukha (with a nod to Clint Eastwood's Million Dollar Baby, 2004) spends most her free time at a boxing gym and, when not in the ring, she participates in gang fights alongside her male classmates. The girl also appears to reject her newly found father. Her bursts of anger directed against Fedor express themselves in acts that range from the petty to the criminal: a daily ritual of breaking his toothbrush, obliging him sleep in the barn, or spiking Fedor's tea with a sleeping pill and then—while he is fast asleep inside the house—setting the structure ablaze. While some of these acts are supposedly provoked by Mukha's refusal to accept Fedor as her father, others stem from the girl's jealousy of his “popularity” among the town's female citizens (including teachers and girls from Mukha's own high school). The scenes where Mukha cries herself to sleep when her “father” does not come home at night, or grills him with questions the following morning, or when she appears topless in front of him—all suggest an ambiguous erotic tension between the two characters. In one of the film's closing scenes Fedor explicitly claims that he had never actually met Mukha's mother in the flesh and only knew her from an epistolary distance. It therefore is ultimately left to the viewer to decide if Fedor is indeed Mukha's biological father and whether this film is an idealized “parable” of a reconstructed (albeit highly dysfunctional) family.

As is befitting of melodrama, the film contains a number of other sentimental subplots and storylines. For example, it turns out that the town's kingpin, the aforementioned tycoon that Mukha has been accused of assaulting and who is portrayed as a stereotypically “pushy capitalist,” was in love with Mukha's deceased mother. The latter, however, chose to remain faithful to Fedor (whom, again, she possibly never actually met) and rejected the tycoon's gifts, including his offer to pay for an operation in an expensive Moscow clinic that could have saved Mariia's life. In another sentimental storyline a local math teacher hopes to marry Fedor and start a family with him. Several other subplots involve Mukha and her male classmates. In one episode the gang's “weakling,” whom Mukha secretly replaces in the gang's fist fights, proposes marriage to her because, proclaiming with a none-too-subtle hint of incest, that she is “like another mother” to him. Alongside these sentimental episodes that avoid concrete social or political matters, Mukha also addresses the Chechen war and its direct impact on an individual family. One of the film's female characters, a postal worker, waits in vain for a letter from her soldier son whom, in her own words, she has sent “to serve the Motherland.”It turns out that the reason the son never writes to her is that he has lost both his arms in combat.

One of the film's chief narrative paradoxes is its temporal framework, in which late Soviet and early post-Soviet realia are intertwined with markers of Putin-era Russia. The director Kott himself claims that, while making the film, he was trying to recreate the feel of the 1980s—the days of his childhood—within the paradigms of a more contemporary Russian setting (“Fil'm ‘Mukha'…”). While describing the creation of scenes set in Mukha's high school, Kott comments: “It was very important for me to create a recognizable school, so that the viewers would immediately recall their own school days. Classes, changing rooms, bags with extra shoes (meshochki so smenkoi), a cafeteria and monitors checking to see if your hands are clean. All of this is very important for the creation of a sense of involvement and the documentary nature of the action” (“Pered prem'eroi”). One example of the film's projection of fragments of the past into a contemporary setting is a scene where a teacher tells her class to silence their cell phones, whereas in another episode the school discotheque plays the 1992 pop tune, Veter s moria dul. In a similar vein, fisticuffs between gangs (a common phenomenon of late 1980s teenage subculture) are played out to a background soundtrack of today's Russian rap. A peculiar third layer of temporal markers in the film is the abundant use of pseudo-Socialist Realist images that frame contemporary events within Soviet tropes and associations (such as a poster of a Russian soldier pointing a bayonet at a prostrate Chechen under the inscription “Terrorism Stops Here!” or a sign at the town's service vehicle parking garage “Honor and Fame According to One's Work”).

In addition to evoking potential nostalgia for the childhood memories for some viewers, the director's conscious construction of the cinematic present with compositional and ideological tropes of the Soviet and perestroika-era past also serves an important narrative function. The town, with its muddy, gray, visually depressing, hopelessly insular and isolated setting, seems to have become fossilized, never quite having made its way into the 21st century. On the other hand the road that Fedor takes into town could be interpreted as a broader, albeit somewhat trite, metaphor for Fedor's existence. Having spent most of his life literally (and metaphorically) on the road, he now has the opportunity to settle down and make this timeless town in provincial Russia a space for his inner search.[1] When, at the end of the film, one of Fedor's truck driving comrades comes back with the money to pay off the tycoon, Fedor initially decides to hit the road again, leaving Mukha and Barabash far behind. However, Fedor's truck soon comes to a stop, and—in the open-ended concluding scene—we see Fedor running back towards the town. This time, unlike his previous entry into Barabash, he does not drive into town but rather comes back on his own two feet, perhaps symbolically leaving the road behind to assume a father's responsibilities for his daughter. Or could it be that he is after something else?

Mukha , released in only 30 or 40 copies, received the award for Best Film at the 11th Shanghai International Film Festival as well as the third prize, “Bronze Taiga,” at the VI International Debut Film Festival “Spirit of Fire” in Khanty-Mansiisk, Russia.

Olga Mesropova
Iowa State University

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Notes

1] The metaphor of a road through provincial Russia representing the protagonist's search for personal growth and a symbol of a morally disoriented society has been prominent in a number of recent Russian films. See for example Elena Monastireva-Ansdell review of Vera Storozheva's film Traveling with Pets (Puteshestvie s domashnimi zhivotnymi, 2007).


Works Cited

Chistikova, Alena. “‘Mukha' sletala v Shankhai,” Vzgliad 27 June 2008.

“Fil'm ‘Mukha': Pered pokazom”. Cinefantom 13 February 2008.

“Pered prem'eroi”: 'Mukha'”. Cinefantom 13 February 2008.


Mukha — The Fly, Russia, 2008
Color, 107 mins.
Director: Vladimir Kott
Screenplay: Vladimir Kott
Cinematography: Evgenii Privin
Production design: Oleg Ukhov
Cast: Aleksei Kravchenko, Aleksandra Tiuftei, Sergei Selin, Evgeniia Dobrovol’skaia, Aleksandr Golubkov, Aleksandra Bogovaia, Konstantin Poiarkin, Ekaterina Chebysheva, Aleksei Iarmil’ko
Music: Anton Silaev
Producer: Evgenii Gindilis
Production: Production Film Company Tvindi, NTV

Vladimir Kott: Mukha—The Fly (Mukha, 2008)

reviewed by Olga Mesropova© 2008

Updated: 15 Oct 08