Issue 41 (2013)

Konstantin Statskii, Elizaveta Solomina, Aleksandr Barshak: FairyTale. exists (Skazka.est’, 2011)

reviewed by Sergey Dobrynin © 2013

The film’s pretentious title (literally: “FairyTale.exists”) seems to proclaim that this is a fairy tale for the computer generation. Ironically, this was wasted on most Russian critics who insisted on punctuating it, meaninglessly, as two sentences: “The Fairy Tale. Exists.” This was not a good omen. The viewers went on to savage the film. Given the number of vehement responses on Russian websites, it is surprising to find that the movie is at all watchable. While this 3-part omnibus film can annoy the spectator with the inordinate quantity of smugly knowing cultural references and the somewhat amateurish delight in the well-worn cinematic/theatrical/circus magic, those same qualities can be lightly amusing and even enjoyable if you are in the right state of mind(lessness). The cinematography is consistent throughout, giving the film the candy-colored look it needs.  And, once in a while, it also delivers a well-deserved blow to the brave new world of middle-class Russia.

skazkaThe real issue here is that the filmmakers are undecided as to who their target audience should be. The first segment (“The Toy World”) seems innocuous enough to qualify as a children’s film (if you disregard the song “Don’t Kill Your Sister”), while the last novella (“EPISHOO”) is a spoof of horror movies which is probably too intense for a child but not biting enough for an adult. Those Russian viewers who withheld from trashing the film entirely seem to favor the first segment and, perhaps, the second (“Childhood Forever”). To this critic, however, the second segment with its adult character wishing to become a child again, is the least memorable, and the circus clichés frankly boring. But let’s begin at the beginning.

skazka“The Toy World” is set in a big toy store where Mom, Pop and little Dasha are looking for stuff to buy for Dasha’s soon-to-be-born little sister. Dasha, who has been told the Sis is a special gift for her personally, is beginning to have second thoughts about the desirability of such a present, until a toy White Rabbit (hint, hint) sends her dreaming into the fairy-tale world.  (The number of White Rabbits in this film—toys, men-in-costume, real rabbits—is staggering). In this toy world she herself becomes the Little Sister in a doll family, and this is where the best part begins, a satire of the “perfect” middle-class family with their squeaky-clean doll’s house. They are always happy—well, they should be; after all, they read Dollopolitan. Things on the outside are not so good, however. Dasha’s CD Player, as well as Dictionary and Teddy Bear, previously abandoned by her, are imprisoned by Evil Clown and his minions, who rule the Toy World with an iron hand. Evil clowns are another mark of this movie, bringing to mind the learned word “coulrophobia” and the suggestion that the creators have seen Stephen King’s It one time too many. Or does Evil Clown stand for someone closer home? Anyway, Dasha becomes a “non-registered” (read: a person without propiska in the toy world), while the prisoners are “illegals” from neighboring departments, a thinly veiled reference to illegal migrants from the former Soviet republics in present-day Russia. Konstantin Khabenskii has fun with his role of Dictionary; he interprets his character as a firebrand revolutionary, spouting Marxist and Trotskyite slogans and calling for redistribution of toyland property. A more placid Teddy Bear tries to play it down: “He is good, only too clever.” It is, however, Dasha’s elder “doll sister” who saves the day. All ends to everyone’s satisfaction: Evil Clown is defeated and re-educated, Dasha learns the importance of caring for young ones and for old toys (society’s outcasts), and the ideal middle-class Russian family—not so different from the toy one—leaves the store to live happily ever after.

skazka“Childhood Forever” (“forever”  is written in English, again a nod to Russian Internet culture) gives us another Evil Clown, more White Rabbits, and—importantly—is introduced by a rap song which we will hear in its entirety as the end credits roll. Russian rap is possible – in fact, it can even be brilliant, as was proved once by Mikhail Elizarov. Unfortunately, the talent on display here is not up to snuff, and the repeated ditty wears off its welcome fast. The theme is the mutual desire of the adults and the children to trade places, as both sides of the Generation Gap see the other age as more joyful and carefree. The story is about an overworked and stressed-out architect whose model of a new circus building has been destroyed by his nine-year-old son. Initially aggravated, he is then magically transported into a circus of his youth and eventually  becomes a boy, shooting the breeze with his son, now his peer. The most enjoyable moment comes when Father mentions Chingachgook, the Indian hero from the DEFA westerns of his childhood, and the son, raised on Harry Potter and other teen cults of today, is lost: “What is he? Someone like Jack Sparrow?” “Sort of,” concedes the Dad, “only with feathers.”  Otherwise, the second segment fades away quickly—or maybe I just don’t like the circus.

skazkaStrangely, it is the much-maligned third segment, “EPISHOO,” that delivers the strongest punch, by opening as a satire of the increasingly wacky experiments in education policies we witness in present-day Russia. A maverick student in a Moscow teachers’ college is sent, as part of her training, to the eponymous institution (which stands for “The Experimental Adolescent Boarding School of Reversible Education,” a new-fangled school run by the Russian Ministry of Education). Things get pretty hairy from the start, when the novice teacher is met by the headmaster, Stanislav Dalievich Salvadorov (the late, great Mikhail Kozakov) and his wife—you guessed it—Gala. What follows is not so much a horror movie, as some reviewers suggested, as a freewheeling spoof of Harry Potter movies, with some decidedly Russian touches. The rebel school student is named Okhlo Bystin—a tribute to popular Russian actor Ivan Okhlobystin. Jumping over a vaulting buck suddenly acquires a new, hilarious meaning, since the Russian word, kozel, meaning goat, is also a term of abuse. On a darker note, the purpose of all this innovation is to “make you into pliant, slithery serpents, just like the teachers.” The story ends happily, but somehow leaves the viewer hungry for funnier jokes and a more coherent message.

FairyTale.exists should be given points for trying to resurrect the children’s film genre which prospered in the Soviet days but vanished as society and culture began to change irrevocably. It is difficult to bridge such a gap, and some of the techniques employed here look and sound like rusty imitations of Soviet children’s films, especially the feeble songs in the first segment. And pop-cultural referentiality (reverentiality?) becomes cloying as it masks the shortage of original ideas, which, when they do appear, fade too quickly, without proper development, as is the case with all the anti-totalitarian asides. One would think that in the five years it took producer Mikhail Porechenkov to bring his pet project to fruition these ideas might have taken a firmer root. Yes, one has to start somewhere, and the marriage of children’s cinema and social satire will never be an easy task, like the hybrid subject of literature and biology taught by the heroine of the last episode. Even so, this reviewer is not looking forward to a FairyTale 2.0.

Sergey Dobrynin
Toronto

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FairyTale.exists, Russia, 2011 (released 2012).
Color, 88 mins.
Directors:
Konstantin Statskii (“The Toy World’)
Elizaveta Solomina (“Childhood Forever”)
Aleksandr Barshak (“EPISHOO”)
Cinematography: Andrei Katorzhenko, Artem Polosatyi
Music: Aleksandr Manotskov
Production designer: Andrei Ponkratov
Cast: Anfisa Vistingauzen, Elizaveta Boiarskaia, Maksim Matveev, Dar’ia Moroz, Mikhail Porechenkov, Konstantin Khabenskii, Andrei Smoliakov, Irina Pegova, Mikhail Kozakov, Ksenia Rappaport, Gosha Kutsenko, Sergei Burunov.
Producers: Anastasiia Perova, Mikhail Porechenkov and Maksim Korolev
Production companies: Movie PRO, VVP Alliance, with the participation of the Russian Federation Ministry of Culture and the Film Fund.

Konstantin Statskii, Elizaveta Solomina, Aleksandr Barshak: FairyTale.exists. (Skazka.est’, 2011)

reviewed by Sergey Dobrynin © 2013

Updated: 14 Jul 13