Issue 38 (2012)
Akan Sataev: The Liquidator (Likvidator, 2011)
reviewed by Katya Balter © 2012
Likvidator will be a new page in our national cinema. For the first time, one of the main roles in the film will be played by a Hollywood star! (Kozlov 2010)
For me, it’s important to work in countries like Kazakhstan, Bulgaria, Romania, in order to help them develop their film industry. Maybe, after this picture, I will become the ambassador of Kazakh cinema to the world. (Shimyrbaeva 2010)
Seeing the DVD cover of Akan Sataev’s film The Liquidator, the viewer might be forgiven for assuming this is a film starring Vinnie Jones (Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, Snatch), with a supporting yet crucial role played by his gun. The poster foregoes the name of the director or the stars for a shot of Jones’ gritty yet expressionless mug superimposed on a wintery landscape. Behind him, there is a shot of what looks like St. Basil’s cathedral in Red Square. According to the prominently featured slogan, Vinnie Jones is out for “more than revenge.” Almost every detail in the poster is a carefully orchestrated lie or, in professional terminology, “marketing:” Vinnie Jones appears in the movie for ten minutes; the setting is Kazakhstan (mostly Almaty and Astana), and the film is certainly not “more” than a revenge fantasy. But it is only as the film’s opening credits begin to roll and the Orwellian phrase “on commission of the Ministry of Culture of the R[epubloc of] K[azakhstan]” appears, that it dawns on the viewer this is not the expected Guy Ritchie knock-off—it is, rather, a Guy Ritchie knock-offwith subtitles.
Director Akan Sataev (Racketeer, Strayed) manages to keep if not the interest, then at least the attention of the viewer with a near-constant barrage of relentless action sequences. The quick takes, the fast-paced simplistic plot with a formulaic “twist,” the Hollywood action-film clichés—all these are hallmarks of Sataev’s style, which he developed early in his career filming commercials. The influence of commercials, however, is more than stylistic—for Sataev, commercials are a “huge, wonderful school” for the developing filmmaker, as they have all the elements of a film: plot, actors, camera. Making commercials disciplines the filmmaker, since “you are responsible for those monies, that your customer paid you, you must be accountable for them” (“Chetvertoe izmerenie”).
Payment, profit, revenue streams, marketing, promotion, commercialization—all those too-easily traded, translated and transliterated concepts are key to Liquidator’s “meaning” in a way that the plot could never be, because Liquidator—as Ermek Amanshaev, head of Kazakhfilm studios, reaffirms in interviews—“was initially conceived by us as a spectator [zritel’skii], or in other words, a commercial project” (Shimyrbaeva 2010). Though Liquidator is the first of Sataev’s films to be co-produced with Kazakhfilm studios, Sataev and Amanshaev fall easily into that shared international language of profit: “we must shoot more commercial movies, oriented towards world distribution” Sataev echoes. (Kazinforma 2012) When asked to define a “commercial film,” Sataev’s answer is equally telling: “First and foremost, it is a business where you invest money and receive profit” (Vlacenko 2007).
Of course, the desire for a national, Hollywood-style blockbuster is neither new nor unique to the Kazakh film industry, which has long been trying to modernize and leave behind its art-house ghetto image. As Sataev points out in an interview during the shooting of Liquidator:
Currently shooting movies in Kazakhstan for a narrow audience is an unprofitable business. Many American films “kill several birds with one stone:” they make profits at the box office, export their ideology and develop their powerful film industry. And they are not especially aiming for the Cannes Palme d'Or, the Berlin Bear or the Venetian lion. Likewise, directors like James Cameron, Steven Spielberg, Guy Ritchie, Quentin Tarantino, David Fincher do not make “films for the cognoscente.” Above all, they make high-quality, watchable films. You don’t have to be Andrei Tarkovsky to make quality cinema. (“Ne nado byt’ Tarkovskim”)
And indeed, it is not Tarkovsky but Timur Bekmambetov who seems to represent the future direction of film in Kazakhstan. Sataev, whom Bekmambetov called “the hope of Kazakh cinema” before handing him a ‘prize-advance’ at the third International Festival of Actions Films, is ready to follow his lead. (Kurpiakova 2012).
The film opens with a jumpy-looking man running and talking on a cellphone—he is scared, he is being followed, ‘they’ want something from him. Cornered by two thugs in an underpass, he is questioned and then brutally beaten to death. The victim, we find out in the next scene, is a journalist and, as Anatolii Fedorovich, the head of the government agency in charge of investigating large-scale corruption, RESpublika, wearily observes: “It’s not great when journalists die, especially like that.”
“Not great indeed,” particularly since it turns out that this journalist has a brother, Arsen (Berik Aitzhanov), a former soldier turned bodyguard extensively trained in hand-to-hand combat, sharpshooting and defensive driving in extreme conditions. When Arsen learns of his brother’s death, he suffers a nervous breakdown and attacks a stranger in a restaurant; subsequently he is ordered to take a break. Once we see Arsen indulging in that cliché scene marking the beginning of all revenge fantasy narratives—a flashback to an earlier innocent time—it immediately transpires that Arsen will have to avenge his brother’s death personally.
It is worth pausing on the flashback scene that will be repeated, with virtually no variation, throughout the film. The scene adds neither pathos nor depth to Arsen’s character, but it is not meant to. The muted laughter, the slow-motion pan across the innocent smiling faces of the children, all these clichés are so obvious that they border on parody. But the scene is dead serious: by retarding the inexorable forward motion of the plot—a plot whose structure we know by heart, and whose main point of interest lies entirely in the quality and quantity of violence it can provide—the flashbacks heighten and sharpen our desire for more action, more beatings, more shootings, moreviolence. The flashback is a utopia, a literal non-space (where does one find a beach in landlocked Kazakhstan?) that intensifies the viewer’s desire for the “koinos topos,” that most “common place” of the action thrillers: the killing scene(s).
Arsen’s reverie is interrupted by a phone call from Zhanna (Karlygash Mukhamedjanova), his brother’s colleague. She has a letter from his brother, as well as a flash-drive (that favored fetish object of the action thriller. It will be a sad day in Hollywood when cloud computing inevitably renders the flash-stick obsolete). Looking through the information on the flashdrive, it immediately becomes clear that this was no ‘ordinary’ politically-motivated beating and killing of a journalist. His brother was in the middle of an investigation into the unsavory financial dealings of wealthy businessman Aldiyar (Menditay Utepbergenov) and was almost ready to go public with his information. Aldiyar obviously ordered the beating, and he, along with the ‘system’ he represents, is responsible for the murder of Arsen’s brother.
Hot on the trail of Sergei (Sergei Nikonenko), his brother’s work partner who has since also mysteriously disappeared, Arsen runs into the two men who beat his brother to death. Incidentally, the going price for a journalist is 500 dollars. Quickly and easily overpowering them, Arsen finds out who ordered his brother’s killing, then stabs and kills the thug Zhomart. From this point, the film is an inevitable succession of scenes showing Arsen as he clears his way up the ranks by killing people: first Aslan, a small-time Mafioso, who was in charge of hiring Zhomart; Arsen shoots him in the bathroom of a tacky nightclub. Then he kills another thug and a security guard who gets in the way of a shootout in a crowded restaurant. Then he kills two bodyguards in a theatre (one has his neck broken for variety’s sake, the other is beaten to death with a gun). Then, finally, Viktor (Viktor Ashanin), the second to last step before ‘the big boss’ Aldiyar. With a gun pressed to his side, Viktor tells Arsen that his brother and Sergei were not entirely blameless: they had tried to blackmail Viktor (their silence for five hundred thousand dollars, a paltry sum). Viktor, a consummate businessman, refused to give money to those who did not earn it, and ordered Arsen’s brother beaten instead. Regrettably, his staunch business ethics cannot save him, and Viktor is shot and thrown off a balcony, the camera lingering on a nicely composed shot of his broken and bloodied body.
As Arsen is taking his increasingly violent vengeance, Berik (Aziz Beyshenaliev), the hardworking RESpublika agent, races to catch him. Despite having all the most modern surveillance toys, an entire team of snipers and a helicopter at their disposal, the agents of RESpublika cannot find Arsen—he has, in a fiendishly clever move, abandoned his car and turned off his cellphone. Yet Arsen seems to have no problem finding Berik—at home, with his family—leading to the expected pseudo-philosophical confrontation between the two opposing sides. “We’re doing the same thing. We are cleaning society” argues Arsen, trying, for some unfathomable reason, to persuade Berik to his side. Berik admits “yes, the system isn’t perfect, but […] no one goes untouched. People will soon understand that there is more to life than material goods. Society, motherland, justice, children. We are working, fighting evil.” RESpublika, incidentally, has a basement where witnesses, like Arsen’s pot-smoking, video-game-playing army buddy, are “questioned” in this “fight against evil.” Unsurprisingly, their conversation ends in stalemate—though Berik now believes that Arsen is not a killer by nature, but just “misguided” and can still be saved.
There is, however, another organization at play, represented by two men (Mikhail Tokarev and Toleubek Aralbay), who first appear after Arsen kills Zhomart. They call themselves “judges” and materialize at exactly those moments in the film where Arsen’s courage fails him: “Don’t stop, the next one is waiting for you,” they urge; “They should all suffer punishment, no exceptions;” “He got what he deserves. We are on your side.” They are so obviously and unabashedly the personification of the film’s fundamental narrative drive—more killing, more violence, more more—that when they are revealed in the penultimate scene to have been figments of Arsen’s imagination, this forms a textbook case of an anticlimax.
Vinnie Jones enters the 90-minute film about half way through. His role in the film maps perfectly to his role in the marketing campaign. In the film, the “mute assassin” is hired by second-in-command Viktor (with approval from the head mafioso Aldiyar) to take care of “the little problem,” Arsen. In reality, Vinnie Jones, who cannot speak a word of Russian, is hired by the director, Sataev (with authorization from Kazakhfilm) to take care of “the little problem” of Berik Aitzhanov, an actor who, though well-known in Kazakhstan, has little cache outside his own country. When asked why Vinnie Jones was chosen for the role of the killer when there are a great many Kazakh actors who could have played the role for half of Jones’ asking price, Sataev’s assistant answered: “Other actors are not brutal enough. When someone sees him [Jones] in cinema, they understand instantly that this is a killer, undoubtedly” (Orange 2011).
The DVD cover, then, despite all its surface falsifications, inadvertently reveals a deeper truth: if we understand ‘liquidity’ as the degree of interchangeability of assets and money—or, as Wikipedia has it—the measure of how often and how easily a product is bought and sold, Jones is the ultimate liquidator, the real star of the whole spectacle. Driving the whole “commercial project” is not the narrative, a mythical struggle between two opposing forces—good and evil, law and revenge, sanity and madness—but rather the image of Vinnie Jones playing “Vinni Dzhons.”
Though the end suggests that the mute assasssin is killed by Berik, and Arsen is dead, having committed suicide by cop, the tag scene post- credits leaves it open-ended: “There’s a pulse!” yells a medic after checking on Arsen. But the decision to make a Liquidator 2 (may I suggest LikviDVAtor?) does not rest with the director, the actors or the production company, says Sataev: it depends on the box-office:
If it’s good, then the hero will once again take up arms to save society from scoundrels and rascals. There’s a lot of them around. The liquidator is necessary not only in Hollywood. While there’s still evil, he won’t be out of a job. (Abdulova 2011)
Like Tinkerbell, Arsen can be brought back to life by the power of our collective faith —though now measured in nothing so illiquid as applause; now only the right profit margins can wake the dead.
2] Both Racketeer (2007) and Strayed (2009) are Sataifilm production—Sataev’s private production company he founded in 2003. However, Sataev had worked previously with Amanshaev when Kazakhfilm commissioned the television serial Brothers (2009).
3] Art Birznek, the president of Birch Tree Entertainment, the American distribution company that bought the rights to Liquidator, praised Berik Aitzhanov’s “great potential as an actor on the global stage,” noting that he is “attractive, charismatic, and very natural in action sequences.” As soon as Aitzhanov—who speaks Russian and Kazakh—can play English language roles, “then everything will be OK.” (“Likvidator vykhodit na mirovoi kinorynok”)
University of California, Berkeley
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Abdulova, Aida, “Akan Sataev, lomaiushchii stereotipy,” Iuridicheskaia gazeta 2011.
‘Chetvertoe izmerenie’, Izvestiia 29 March 2011.
Esenkulova, Roza, “Za ‘Reketirom’ prishel ‘Likvidator’,” Tengrinews 29 March 2011.
Kozlov, Konstantin, “LIKVIDnyi proekt,” Liter 16 February 2010.
Kurpiakova, Natal’ia, ‘Supergeroi: vchera, segodnia, zavtra,” Kazakhstanskaia pravda 3 July 2012.
Shimyrbaeva, Galiia, “Vinni Dzons,” Kazakhstanskaia pravda 23 April 2010.
“Ne nado byt’ Tarkovskim,” Tauport.kz 7 May 2010.
“U nashego kino—bol’shoe budushchee,” Gazeta.kz 2 July 2012.
Vlasenko, Ol’ga, “Za vse nado platit’,” Ekspert Kazakhstan, 16 July 2007.
The Liquidator, 2011
Color, 94 minutes
Director: Akan Sataev
Screenplay: Timur Zhaksylykov
Director of Photography: Khassan Kydyraliev
Production Designer: Dastan Zhangarashev
Make-up artist: Lidiia Ordynskaia
Costume designer: Elena Rubanova
Composer: Renat Gaissin
Sound director: Maksim Reinbah
Sound directors, post-production: Dmitrii Chernov, Natal’ia Dmitrieva
Film Editor: Sergei Berdyugin
Cast: Berik Aitzhanov, Aziz Beishenaliev, Karlygash Mukhamedzhanova, Vinnie Jones, Mikhail Tokarev, Toleubek Aralbai, Timur Zhaksylykov, Sergei Nikonenko, Anatolii Krezhenchukov, Viktor Ashanin, Mentai Utepbergenov, Irina Lebssak, Sergei Ufimtsev
Production studios: Kazakhfilm, Sataifilm
Distributors: Kazakhfilm (Kazakhstan, Russia: Theatrical), Birch Tree Entertainment (Worldwide: Theatrical), Millennium Entertainment (USA: DVD)
Akan Sataev: The Liquidator (Likvidator, 2011)
reviewed by Katya Balter © 2012