Issue 32 (2011)
Anton Bormatov: The Alien Girl (Chuzhaia, 2010)
reviewed by Joe Crescente © 2011
Watching The Alien Girl leaves the viewer dumbfounded; even after a second viewing one still harbors a sense of having missed something significant. Irina Shmeleva, who introduced the film at the most recent Russian Film Week NYC, raised some helpful questions about the film. Is it an apologetic film for the 1990s or a memorial to that period? Is it an unflinching action thriller or a feminist fable?
The film begins in Kyiv, Ukraine, in September 1993. The opening scene takes place at a stonecutter’s workshop where four bandits make fun of the owner’s stutter while ordering an engraving. The cruelty and malice vis-à-vis the man are indicative of how criminals at this time acted towards those living a “normal” life. The Alien Girl is very much a period piece, not just in terms of attitude, but in fashion, music, and diction. The script is peppered with a dated bandit’s jargon, and many of the main male characters wear leather jackets and tracksuit pants.
After a hit on four fellow mobsters goes awry (one of them survives and is able to communicate with the authorities), the head mobster, Rashpil’—a gaunt, crack-smoking ghost of a man—orders a group of men to go to Prague to find the Alien Girl, the younger sister of the man who survived. These hit-men are told only that she is working as a prostitute there; they receive some cash and a contact number in Prague. Malysh, an intimidating, burly shaved-headed bandit, is chosen as the leader of this mission. Having served several years in the Soviet army in Czechoslovakia, he has ground experience and knowledge of the local language.
The road trip from Kyiv to Prague is punctuated by a series of acts of hooliganism and beastly events, such as stealing apples from old women who sell them by the roadside; throwing cigarettes at a passerby; and frightening a farmer, taking him out to the middle of nowhere and leaving him there. They finagle their way across the border more quickly by insisting that they are going to a funeral.
Once in Prague, the four guys stand out, both in speech and dress, but most glaringly in manners. They routinely insult waitstaff, those who stand out as different from them, and they do not seem to grasp the concept of a pedestrian crossing. Immediately after meeting them, their local contact insists that they purchase new clothing to better “fit in.”
The film is an imagining of Ukraine in 1993, but also a post-Soviet imagining of Europe in those years, when the former Eastern Bloc countries turned towards Europe while parts of the former Soviet Union were isolated from an unfamiliar western culture. The cruelties of these men highlight their incivility in “civilized” Europe. Even the concept of the new nation-state does not seem to have sunken in for the men. While they recognize that there are borders where previously there had been none, to them they are seemingly temporary and manageable.
Early in the film, Malysh blankly watches a television broadcast, showing Vladimir Zhirinovsky talk of the reconstitution of the Soviet Union, calling Kazakhstan—southern Siberia. There is a sense that the characters are stuck in a liminal space, clearly going somewhere, but with an uncertain destination. Thus there is little comprehension of the rules of the moment and how their actions today could impact a future that may never come.
The men spend several days wandering through the neighborhoods where prostitutes proliferate in Prague, asking questions and showing the Alien Girl’s photo. Finally they kidnap a Russian-speaking prostitute who brings them to an informal brothel which leads to another, formal one, controlled by a Roma gang. Having surrounded the brothel, Malysh enters the building ostensibly to purchase the Alien Girl, presuming that she is here. Malysh uses his Czech for the first time here, as if they had had no reason previously to communicate. While kidnapping the Alien Girl, one of the four men is gravely injured in a brutal firefight that breaks out. In a demonstration of their cruelty, they leave him on a public street rather than risk dropping him off in front of a hospital. They smash a window with a rock, setting off an alarm as he lays dying.
The Alien Girl is highly intoxicated when she is taken from the brothel. Upon sobering up, she does not seem terribly surprised by the situation, although she is not exactly excited by it either. She has no desire to return to Kyiv. She asks Malysh when they are alone to consider running off with her to a “normal” country like “France.” Most committed to the job, Malysh refuses to consider the offer, although he is partially operating on the assumption that he would lose out by moving to France.
When the men decide to split up to improve their chances of crossing borders, the Alien Girl seduces Shustryi, the youngest and most hot-headed of the group, with the enticing promise of a new life in France. Together they assassinate the remaining members of the gang. However, the Alien Girl is intent on having her revenge in Ukraine before starting over. Shustryi is critically injured in a gun-fight, but the Alien Girl succeeds in murdering Rashpil’.
The film then fast-forwards five years to 1998, much in the grand tradition of Soviet cinema, telling its story in two parts. The Alien Girl is now a wealthy businesswoman although some associates of Rashpil’ have her taken out: the mob never forgets. The lone survivor, Shustryi, is seen in a high security prison.
The liberal commentator Marina Lesko sees the film in a new light.
Despite the effect-laden shoot outs and rivers of blood, the film The Alien Girl is not about bandits, but about women…The choice of theme and the handling of the central (and only…) female image in the film are symptomatic. The fact that the heroine’s nickname is “Alien Girl” is not accidental (Lesko).
The Alien Girl could be seen as succeeding in a man’s world. She had previously been working for Rashpil’ in Kyiv, but is sent to Prague, because she was becoming too successful, and potentially too powerful. Removing her is a way of disempowering her. While she is able to have her revenge, it is only temporary, as masculine fury can never be fully abated. The mafia is a men’s club after all.
The Alien Girl is based on a well-received novel of the same title by Vladimir Nesterenko from 2006. The novel came out at a time when Russia was just beginning to look back at the 1990s with a sense of sentimentality (think Buslov’s Bimmer [Bumer] and Balabanov’s Dead Man’s Bluff [Zhmurki]). Seemingly Nesterenko sought to destroy this veneer (Kuvshinova).
Many of the main actors were unknowns prior to this film, mainly plucked from the stages of provincial theaters. One exception is the godfather of the criminal clan, Rashpil’, played by Evgenii Mundum, a veteran of stage and television dramas, most prominently of the 2005 television version of Doktor Zhivago. The lead actress, Natalia Romanycheva, was discovered on the stage of the Crimean State Academic Russian Theater. As the Alien Girl she is effective and chameleon-like as she slithers between her seemingly desultory fortunes. The director Anton Bormatov was primarily known for television serials and directing several music videos for Russian rock band Mumiy Troll.
The Alien Girl is one of those rare films where literally all of the main characters die. As if this is unclear, in the final credits every main character’s corpse is shown to remind the viewer of this fact. The film critic Semen Kvasha suggests that in comparison to other films about the banditry of the 1990s The Alien Girl is unique in that it has no positive characters. He states that “In The Alien Girl there is not one character, even in a small, supporting role who does not arouse hatred in the viewer, and does not compel one to wish them a prompt and painful death” (Kvasha). That perhaps is the film’s only certainty.
New York University
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Kuvshinova, Maria, “Pistoletnaia opera,” Seans.
Kvasha, Semen, “Nikogo ne zhalko,” film.ru.
Lesko, Marina, “Iadovitaia samka cheloveka,” Novyi vzgliad.
The Alien Girl, Russia 2010
Color, 104 minutes.
Director: Anton Bormatov.
Written by: Vladimir Nesterenko and Sergei Sokoliuk.
Starring: Natalia Romanycheva (Alien Girl), Kirill Polukhin (Malysh), Evgenii Tkachuk (Shustryi), Anatolii Otradnov (Giria), Aleksandr Golubkov (Soplia), Evgenii Mundum (Rashpil’).
Director of photography: Dmitrii Kuvshinov and Anastasiy Mikhailov.
Composer: Iuriy Dement’ev.
Producers: Konstantin Ernst and Igor Tolstunov.
Production Company: Krasnyi kvadrat – kino, Profit, and 20th Century Fox.
Anton Bormatov: The Alien Girl (Chuzhaia, 2010)
reviewed by Joe Crescente © 2011