Issue 27 (2010)
Anders Banke: Newsmakers (Goriachie novosti, 2009)
reviewed by Olga Mesropova © 2010
Perhaps one of Newsmakers’ more remarkable attributes is its “transnational” production. This first Russian cinematic remake of an Asian title is based on the 2004 Hong Kong action thriller Breaking News, directed by the acclaimed and prolific Johnny To. In addition to uniting Eastern and Western film traditions, this Russian feature has a truly international crew. The film’s script was co-written by Aleksandr Lungin (the son of the prominent Russian film director Pavel Lungin) and Sam Klebanov (a Russian émigré living in Sweden who is known to most Russians as the anchor of the recently cancelled television show “Magic of Cinema” [“Magiia kino”]). Directing an all-star cast of Russian actors is the Swede, Anders Banke, who studied filmmaking at the prestigious All-Russian State Institute for Cinematography (VGIK) in Moscow. Another former VGIK student (and graduate of the Royal College of Arts in London) is the film’s British cinematographer, Chris Maris. In keeping with this multinational spirit, Danish composer Anthony Lledo provides the film’s music. Last but not least, the shooting of most of The Newsmakers’ interior scenes as well as the film’s entire post-production took place in Sweden.
While closely following the Hong Kong film’s script, Newsmakers taps into a genre familiar to Russian audiences. Crime dramas as well as the so-called boeviki featuring ruthless terrorists, ubiquitous Mafiosi, and inept law enforcement officers dominated Russian cinema, television, and popular literature throughout most of the 1990s. Building its suspense via this easily recognizable Yeltsin-era narrative formula, this adaptation of To’s story also presents a theme that resonates with Putin’s Russia, namely the manipulation of the mass media by government officials.
The film begins with a botched police operation against a gang of criminals in a residential neighborhood in the center of Moscow. Similar to its Hong-Kong prototype, whose opening features a 10-minute uncut steadicam shot punctuated by gunfire and violence, Newsmakers’ initial scenes present an extended episode filled with exploding grenades, bloody shootings, and colliding vehicles. A television camera operator, who happens to be in the middle of the shootout, takes footage of the fiasco. Within a few hours images of a cowering cop begging the gangsters not to kill him appear on all television stations. The Kremlin and the chiefs at police headquarters are not pleased by this turn of events.
Enter police public relations director Katia Verbitskaia (played by Mariia Mashkova and best known to Russian audiences for her role in a television series Don’t Be Born Beautiful), who offers a plan to restore the honorable image of Russian law enforcement. Katia’s idea is to turn the next police raid into a “reality show,” in which a special forces team will be equipped with miniature cameras attached to their helmets. The agents are accompanied by an on-site director (a cameo appearance by the film’s actual producer, Klebanov) who will provide instant editing of any footage from the operation. Katia, who is a caricature of glamorous media persona replete with chic outfits and stiletto heels, assures the police that the “show” will follow the conventions of reality television. The “reality show” also includes abundant product placement ranging from such commodities and services as Sony Vaio Notebooks, Russian “Ararat” cognac, and Skylink Internet, as well as a fictional brand of mineral water “Valh alla” that becomes the operation’s “official water.” Media representatives are invited to accompany the raid, and the appropriately edited operation reports are shown live on national television. To enhance the “reality” of this “police show,” a Swedish media magnate quickly offers to buy the franchise.
While the police consciously try to put on a show while also attempting to go about their real work of capturing criminals, a group of gangsters takes three hostages—a taxi- driving father and his two unruly school- age children. The gangsters then hide with their captives in the family’s apartment in a large, Soviet- era residential complex in Chertanovo. Hostage-taking might not seem to be the most appealing entertainment fare given Russia’s recent history with terrorism and Chechen wars. Nevertheless, the film’s loose plot structure allows ample space for campy, sitcom-like scenes completely detached from the conventional images of brutality typical of the gangster genre. Moreover, the criminals in this film do not seem to be depicted as villains. Shooting and hostage taking aside, the mobsters come across as more humane characters than the police. The gangsters are honorable, charismatic, and even form a jovial bond with their hostages. In one scene, as the gangsters and their hostages prepare a meal while imbibing cognac, the former cajole the hostage children to do their homework. With a tonality reminiscent of the children’s comedy television show Eralash, the two youngsters nonchalantly note that they had better do their homework because, in case they don’t get killed today, they’ll have to go back to school tomorrow. Furthering the presentation of hostage-taking as carnival (and in keeping with the original Hong Kong film) one of the hostage children, who happens to be a computer whiz, playfully helps the gangsters stream their own videos that contradict the official press releases dealing with the evolving crime story.
Unlike To’s film in which the mobsters engage in an elaborate cyber-game with the police, in Newsmakers this storyline of dueling Internet narratives remains under-developed and lacks dramatic tension, thereby diminishing what could have been an intriguing conflict between the police and the gangsters. Instead of setting the police and the criminals in opposition, the film’s narrative juxtaposes Major Smirnov (played by Andrei Merzlikin, who made a name for himself after appearing in the 2003 Russian gritty gangster blockbuster Bimmer [Bumer]), and the new generation, PR-driven, law enforcement officers. Unlike younger (and corrupt) police officers, Smirnov is an honest, old school detective who favors traditional police procedures. Although Smirnov was explicitly excluded from the hostage rescue operation he manages to shoot the mobsters’ leader and saves the PR director Katia after she had been abducted by the same thugs who had hijacked the aforementioned taxi driver and his children. It falls to officer Smirnov to play the part of the dark, romanticized “loner” of the boevik formula. In the end it is Smirnov who restores order despite the interference and falsifications of the reality TV police operation.
While Newsmakers attempts to adopt a more satirical tone than the Hong Kong original in its representation of the volatile nature of the relationship between the mass media and government spin doctors, there is a slight contradiction of this satire in the film’s conclusion. The movie ends with a reconciliation of the “loner” policeman and his ostensible antagonist, the media manipulator par excellence, Katia. At a final press conference a police general thanks the two rivals and states that the success of the operation should be ascribed to their team work. In this final episode Katia—sans her glamorous stilettos (which she lost in a chase when she was taken hostage) and her suit and face covered with grime—appears to be “reeducated” to the notion that police work just might involve more than merely constructing a positive image of law enforcement officers.
Despite an aggressive promotional campaign—producer Klebanov and the film’s cast personally presented the film in nearly 20 Russian cities—the film enjoyed scant popularity among Russian audiences and film critics. The producers attributed film’s lack of commercial success to its May release, suggesting that May’s warm temperatures discourage people from going to Russia’s (air-conditioned) movie-theaters. Russians’ current lack of interest in national cinema, the alleged absence of a star system in Russia, and—somewhat ironically—the film’s insufficient promotion in the Russian media were also cited as culprits in the film’s unfavorable commercial and critical reception (see, for example, ProGorod). Newsmakers’ modest success in Russia does not seem to be discouraging other adaptations of Johnny To’s film. American director Joel Schumacher is said to be working on a Paramount Vantage remake of the same Hong Kong original.
Iowa State University
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Newsmakers, Russia, Sweden, 2009
Color, 107 minutes.
Director: Anders Banke
Scriptwriters: Sam Klebanov, Aleksandr Lungin
Cinematography: Chris Maris
Production design: Grigorii Pushkin
Music: Anthony Lledo
Cast: Andrei Merzlikin, Evgenii Tsyganov, Mariia Mashkova, Sergei Garmash, Maksim Konovalov, Artem Semakin, Sam Klebanov.
Producers: Sam Klebanov, Peter Hiltunen, Anna Katchko, Alexander Sizov
Production: Tandem Pictures, Illusion Film, Film i Vast, Maywin Media
Anders Banke: Newsmakers (Goriachie novosti, 2009)
reviewed by Olga Mesropova © 2010