Issue 45 (2014)
Levan Gabridze, Aleksandr Karpilovskii, Dmitrii Kiselev, Aleksandr Kott, Anton Meredichev, Ekaterina Telegina, Zaur Zaseev: Yolki 3 (Elki 3, 2013)
reviewed by Beach Gray© 2014
Yolki 3  is the third film in a series of recent Russian New Year’s blockbusters. The film surpassed the two previous installments at the box office during the New Year’s holiday alone—from its premier on 26 December until 8 January—to earn 1.1 billion rubles ($38 million), the third highest for a domestic film in the history of the Russian Federation (Anon. 2014). The Bazelevs film studio has announced plans for a fourth Six Degrees of Celebration film. A spin-off of the central vignette in Yolki 3 is also in the making (Anon. 2013). The series, it would seem, could go on indefinitely: “Yolki” has become a brand itself, an official sponsor of Yolki 3, along with Fond Kino, S7 Airlines, Russia Channel One, and Mercedes.
This almanac comedy consists of a series of seven interlocking vignettes about love, communication, and relationships in contemporary Russia on the eve of the New Year. It relies on a Bazelevs studio production model in which each vignette is a mini-film with its own team of director, cinematographer, cast, and additional production workers. The screenplay and production, however, are tightly controlled. This division of labor presumably reduces production costs, but more importantly provides a training ground for young filmmakers in the Bazelevs studio. Each vignette follows a fairy-tale structure that culminates in a happy ending. The film alternates among these vignettes, never spending more than a few consecutive minutes on each episode.
Only the plotline concerning the businessman Boria (Ivan Urgant) and his friend Zhenia (Sergei Svetlakov) has been continued from the original film through to the third installment. Once bachelors on the eve of marriage, they are now fathers, each of whom has a son named Boria. The two provide comedic relief and star value (Urgant has his own late-night talk on Russia Channel One). As they become involved in a series of unlikely situations, they accidentally end up on a bus that takes them to a psychiatric ward, but are able to escape and make it back in time to Boria’s apartment before their wives (both of whom are named Olia) return from a day at the spa, none the wiser. Besides this duo, three other vignettes have survived, all of which appeared only in Six Degrees of Celebration 2. If Urgant and Svetlakov are the late 20s/early 30-something generation, the other male buddy couple consists of the young 20-somethings: the snowboarder Dima and the skier Grisha from Perm'. In Yolki 3 they try to avoid Russian selective service. With the snowboarder’s sidekick girlfriend and a slightly inappropriate grandmother, the vignette is full of humor, in a film dominated by romantic interest. A third continued vignette involves a university professor, played by Gosha Kutsenko. Kutsenko represents the middle-aged generation with grown children, and in this film he plays the role of the philandering but apologetic husband, who has to win his wife back after she discovers he has been disloyal to her.
Many of the characters and vignettes from Six Degrees of Celebration and Six Degrees of Celebration 2 do not appear in this film. They are not even referenced, as if they had never existed. The dropped episodes are replaced with new romantic lines, all of which revolve around one new male character and one new female character meeting each other in the “real” world with the help of internet-based technology. Similar to the other vignettes, each episode interpellates the spectator through a protagonist of a specific, under-35, age-range. In the same generation as Boria and Zhenia (early 30-something) is Denis, who ekes out a humble, yet honorable living as a doctor in Novosibirsk. The videotape of Denis and Masha’s last days in high school functions as a marker of the young professional generation. Denis and Masha each have a copy that they watch nostalgically. The two are able to reconnect when Denis sends Masha a friend request on Facebook and finds out that, even though she lives in Moscow, she is in Novosibirisk for the weekend. Denis tries to impress Masha with the financial success that he has not had, and the unfolding of the plot concerns the resolution of miscommunication and misplaced priorities. If this vignette is about reconnection, the one that concerns the 20-somethings involves a different dynamic, fitting to the featured generation: meeting for the first time in person after a long-distance internet relationship. Vika is supposed to meet her beloved in the airport, but her concern for others and her relentless honesty keep stalling her, and a misunderstanding at an ATM even causes her to end up in jail under suspicion of thievery. In these episodes, older generations are absent without explanation or they are enablers and advocates of the young, such as the retired bachelor, Nikolai Petrovich. He forces Vika to leave him (even though he is unwell) to meet her love interest on time.
What unites all of these vignettes? The first film focused on reaching President Medvedev so that he could give a coded message to a girl in an orphanage at the stroke of midnight. Each vignette motivated a cellular phone call to another character and episode in a series of calls aimed at contacting the president in time. If the narrative justification in the first film was weak, the only clear link among these plots, according to Konstantin Khabenskii’s voice over, is the “boomerang of good,”—a nebulously karma-based idea that good action will be rewarded in time. This carefully-crafted concept posits a belief in good with a fairy-tale logic that elides the atheist Soviet and Russian Orthodox worldviews by providing a third option that does not have the historical baggage of the other two.
Fan participation and the centrality of internet technology are a more productive way to draw the links among the episodes, especially in consideration of the master vignette, the most curious and outlandish episode to date. It concerns the pre-pubescent Nast'ia. Too young to be (appropriately) involved in a romantic relationship, she becomes concerned when her parents promise to break up her two dogs, the mutt male Pirate and the purebred female Yoko, the latter of whom Nast'ia’s mother is taking to a breeder in London. The tragic figure in the episode is Nast'ia’s father, who travels to London with the mother and Yoko, leaving Nast'ia behind on New Year’s Eve. After Nast'ia explains to the dog Pirate that Yoko is headed to London, Pirate becomes an anthropomorphized, but still non-speaking character, with trained expressions to show despair, unhappiness, or excitement. The dog runs to the airport, steals a sausage, bribes another dog, and sneaks into a carrier on an aircraft to London. Pirate makes it to London and finally attempts to meet Yoko on the tarmac. When security forces attempt to tranquilize the dog, Nast'ia’s father turns up to take the bullet.
By the time that Pirate makes it to London, the story has become a world event, covered by international news sources. Nast'ia made a Facebook page expressing Pirate’s love for Yoko in order to convince her mother to keep the two dogs together, if only there were enough “likes.” Nast'ia is able to keep the page updated when Pirate runs away in search of his beloved. The Facebook page becomes so popular on New Year’s Eve that enough likes and the boomerang of good seem to bring the two canines and Nast'ia’s family back together. After Nast'ia’s father has taken the tranquilizer bullet for Pirate, the dog finds him and licks his face to wake him up, as if to bring him back to his senses. He decides that the whole family will be together for the New Year’s holiday.
The master vignette produces a reading that unlocks the key to understanding the other vignettes. In a clever substitution, the film shows that desire can be mapped onto any couple, so long as that couple is heteronormative and has popular-culture appeal. The decision to cast dogs both references the popularity of cute pet videos on the internet and takes it a step further. The move is almost a metacritique of genre, showing which parts are necessary to the story and which are not for this light comedy. “Love” in this context is sexless and cute to the point of absurdity. It concerns the short-term memory and need for instant gratification that is often associated with canines.
Internet culture and fans are able to bring together the two dogs, whose relationship is at least as important as any human one in the film. It is decidedly more popular both within the diegesis of the film—in terms of Facebook “likes”—and outside of the film, with a spin-off film of this episode planned by Bazelevs for the future (Anon. 2013). The film does not just reference the internet as the locus of collective fan agency, it also mimics the visual aesthetics of web pages and reflects the frenetic back-and-forth narrative structure that may be associated with social media. If the editing techniques of previous Bazelevs studio films were based on music videos, now they are even more polished, especially in the way they are segmented. The vignette featuring Gosha Kutsenko, for example, does not begin until forty minutes into the 90-minute-long film, an indication that new interest within the film needs to be constantly generated, even if each plotline is not fully developed.
The mise-en-scène abounds with mobile technologies: smart-phones, tablets, and computer screens are shown alone in close-up or in medium shots, attached to their human characters. The first interaction between humans in the diegesis of the film occurs when Nast'ia makes a post to keep Pirate and Yoko together. Footage features a computer screen of a Facebook page with the sounds of Nast'ia’s diegetic voice as she types the words appearing on the screen. The film cuts to a medium shot of Nast'ia’s father as he reads to Nast'ia’s mother what Nast'ia has just written. Even though Nast'ia is in the adjoining room, communication occurs over web-based technologies. Nast'ia then enters her parents’ room to plead Pirate’s case. The formula works for Denis and Masha as well: communication first occurs in physical absence before the two connect in person.
In addition to the direct foregrounding of technological devices throughout the film, the illuminated geopolitical map of Russia and the world from the previous two films punctuates the narrative and marks a break from the vignettes. This time, though, it simulates a fuller impression of three-dimensional space. If it used to literalize the ethereal cellular telephone link from one distant city to the next, it now represents a way of visualizing cyberspace and the virtual links between these people in different cities. The change from the previous two films to this one is the way that now Russia, rather than the former Soviet Union, is the focus on the geo-political map. The cities span Russia from West to East, but they do not go into Central Asia (unlike in Six Degrees of Celebration 2, which begins in Dushanbe, Tajikistan). The image that the film projects is that Russia is an empire and a superpower, on a par with the British Empire, located in London, where the central vignette takes the film (even though it looks to be just a backdrop), and the emerging Chinese empire with its economic influence centered in Shanghai, where the businesspeople to whom Boria constantly speaks on Skype are located. The subtle message is that the film no longer needs to unite all of the “small brothers and sisters” from the former Soviet Union under the yolka (New Year’s tree) of Russian ethnic superiority—it is already an unspoken assumption. The fleeting vignette that features the policeman Misha, who marries a Tajik woman and has a son, is perhaps most indicative. He is ethnically Russian and the symbol of a good and benevolent state. Yusup (played by Tajik Jimmy)—the guest worker and celebrity who provided comic relief in Six Degrees of Celebration, but eventually became responsible for getting the message to the president in time—is one of the policeman’s new relatives. The film does not recognize the cameo by the actor to be necessarily the same character. Diversity and intermarriage are acceptable so long as the relationship is heteronormative and the child’s name is Russian. After brushing off the Tajik names that Jimmy suggests, Misha comes to the conclusion at the end of the film to name his son Ivan, the name most closely associated with Russian ethnic identity.
Besides the images of the map, the mise-en-scène throughout the film subtly reflects the aesthetic of an attractive, (almost) advertisement-free webpage. It is an ideal version of the web where everything is unnaturally bright, colors are strong and electric, and the entire screen has a smooth sheen that denies texture. This becomes most apparent in the way that white color and space occupy many of the frames. When Denis picks up Masha one night in a new Mercedes that he has borrowed, shots outside the vehicle depict the Mercedes on brightly-lit roads full of people celebrating the New Year, while shots inside the vehicle are characterized by Masha’s bright white fur coat, which fills much of the frame. The rest of the film is no different. The psychiatric ward where Boria and Zhenia end up is brightly illuminated, even when the two are restrained in bed for the night. The same is true for the snowboarder and skier, who have been stationed on the Island of Rotmanov (adjacent to Alaska). They work with shovels in a white background with white fur hats and warm clothing. All of the horrors of the Soviet legacy of punishment—the psychiatric ward, the Gulag-like conditions on the Island of Rotmanov, Vika’s false arrest at the ATM machine—are presented as if each were a temporary frolic. It is just as easy for the characters to get out of these situations as it was to get into them, and when characters are able to escape, they leave without the psychological trauma usually associated with these experiences.
No doubt this film appeals specifically to a young demographic, for whom the Soviet Union is either a distant memory or no memory at all. Similar to the model of the music video before, it stretches a visual genre and adapts it to film in a way that references the previous culture, but produces a new product altogether. That may be one way to account for the success and popularity of Yolki 3, in addition to the branding and expectations from the previous two films. Fans play a central role in the film, and not just through the boomerang of good and a visual aesthetic aimed at appealing to them with constant references to the internet and social media. The end of the film features a digitally composited image of the words “Happy New Year” (in Russian: S novym godom). Each letter is in fact an aerial high-angle shot of a crowd of human fans taken in a specific Russian city (with the exception of Almaty, Kazakhstan) during filming. Each letter is composed of 500-1000 people, from Kaliningrad, Ufa, Krasnodar, Voronezh, Almaty, Vladikavkaz, Ekaterinburg, St. Petersburg, Perm', Irkutsk, and Magnitogorsk in order of the appearance of each letter. In addition to fan participation before and during shooting, there was a contest before the release of the film that solicited fan videos and stories. The winner receives the most sentimental gift imaginable, and one fitting with the “Yolki” themes of the importance of human connectivity: a round-trip airplane ticket from one Russian city to any other to visit relatives/loved ones for the New Year’s holidays. All of these efforts have been enabled by the film’s website.
The purported message of the film is a lukewarm endorsement of karma and the idea that technology should and can be used to connect people, but that there is a time when internet-linked devices should be put away to enjoy human company in the flesh. The embedded messages of the film are less direct. The work is curiously apolitical. If in Six Degrees of Celebration 2 the Soviet past, and specifically the Brezhnev era, was remembered fondly, even if the current moment is featured as a better time when things unrealized in that past can now come to fruition, then the Soviet past in this film is entirely elided. None of the protagonists is old enough for the Soviet period to have been formative to their identity. It is telling that the fourth film, which will be entitled Yolki–1914, will look at how people celebrated New Year’s exactly one hundred year ago, conveniently skipping Soviet history altogether.
The superiority of the contemporary moment does not even need to be proved or questioned. It is stated as a fact, while the film avoids contemporary social issues. Service in the army and the plight of the insane are moments of comic relief, and the film finds ease and comfort in heteronormativity—to the point that a relationship between two dogs is safer and “more” interesting than even the suggestion of anything to do with LGBTQ culture. When Boria and Zhenia are re-united with their wives at the end of the film, the two kiss their own wives, respectively, and when Boria jokingly makes a motion as if to kiss Zhenia, Zhenia backs away and replies in a way that shows he understands the joke: “Hey, that’s for next year!” More than a suggestion that gay culture will be more acceptable in the future, it is a finger on the pulse of a specific strain of popular culture that does not want to delve into the difficult question of gender identification in Russia.
University of Pittsburgh
1] The first part was translated for international release as Six Degrees of Celebration, a title KinoKultura has also used for the review of the second part; the third part no longer carries this international title, so we have adopted the commonly used version Yolki
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Anon. (2014), “‘Elki 3’ preodoleli milliardnyi kassovyi rubezh,” Gazeta.ru 9 January.
Anon. (2013), “‘Bazelevs’ snimet spin-offy ‘Elok’”, Khoroshee kino 2 December.
Yolki 3, Russia 2013
Color, 93 minutes
Directors: Levan Gabridze, Aleksandr Karpilovskii, Dmitrii Kiselev, Aleksandr Kott, Anton Meredichev, Ekaterina Telegina, Zaur Zaseev
Screenplay: Ol'ga Kharina, Anna Matison, Kseniia Mchelidze, Roman Nepomniashchii
Cinematography: Marat Adel'shin, Andrei Bakorin, Petr Dukhovskoi, Ivan Lebedev, Mikhail Milashin, Sergei Trofimov
Set Design: Dmitrii Onishchenko, Elena Travkina
Music: Pavel Esenin, Oleg Karpachev
Cast: Baimurat Allaberdiev (Tajik Jimmy), Anton Bogdanov, Anna Chipovskaia, Aleksandr Domogarov Jr., Petr Fedorov, Valentin Gaft, Aleksandr Golovin, Ivan Ivashkin, Konstantin Khabenskii (voice-over), Maria Lugova, Maksim Kostromykhin, Gosha Kutsenko, Galina Stakhanova, Valeria Streliaeva, Vera Strokova, Sergei Svetlakov, Ivan Urgant
Producers: Timur Bekmambetov, Iva Stromilova
Levan Gabridze, Aleksandr Karpilovskii, Dmitrii Kiselev, Aleksandr Kott, Anton Meredichev, Ekaterina Telegina, Zaur Zaseev: Yolki 3 (Elki 3, 2013)
reviewed by Beach Gray© 2014