Issue 45 (2014)
Zhora Kryzhovnikov Kiss Them All! (Gor’ko!, 2013)
reviewed by Greg Dolgopolov© 2014
Kiss Them All! is billed as a romantic comedy, although it could well have been a documentary about traditional Russian wedding customs or a training film in compositing the most showy Russian national stereotypes. The debut feature by Zhora Kryzhovnikov (pseudonym of Andrei Pershin) is a treatise on the never-ending dualism of the Russian soul: rich and poor, the civilized and the uncouth, rationality and madness, dissolute sobriety and stern drunkenness, fat and thin all living together in an antagonistic, natural coexistence.
The sacred wedding ritual brings together this theatre of conflict, highlighting the antagonisms in ancient traditions. At the reception the guests toast by screaming “bitter” (gor’ko) in order to induce the newlyweds to kiss for an eternity, thereby making the “bitter” taste of vodka sweet. The film’s advertising slogan clearly states the dialectical objective: “the most important thing is not to get sizzled!” Drink but don’t get drunk? Alcohol at once intensifies the polarities and reduces differences. There is resistance to drinking, but as a disinhibitor it unleashes all kinds of wildness. And then, at the end of the party with the newlyweds and their family in police custody, the father with a gunshot wound to the leg and everything seemingly destroyed, the polarities miraculously disappear and a deeper understanding and even forgiveness emerges. This is the story of Kiss Them All!—a film that has attracted considerable antagonism, without nuance, in audience opinions that are divided between those who found the film offensive and other saying they loved it (Romendik 2013). The mission of Kiss Them All! is one of unity, demonstrating that social differences between Russians can evaporate around certain sacred rituals when diverse communities come together, moving from an impasse to solidarity.
The plot is nominally uncomplicated: a young couple, Natasha (Iuliia Aleksandrova) and Roma (Egor Koreshkov), are in love; although coming from different social spheres, they decide to get married. Natasha’s stepfather (Ian Tsapnik), a city administrator and former paratrooper, sees the wedding traditionally, as an important social event and an opportunity to advance his career; therefore he is prepared to spare no expense. Ignoring his daughter’s wishes, he arranges a traditional Soviet-style reception at the city’s “best” restaurant with all the requisite speeches, performances and entertainment and inviting diverse and distant relatives from all spheres of life. The problem is that Natasha and Roma despise traditional weddings and want something more contemporary for themselves and their friends. Relying on an acquaintance (a sleazy Moscow producer), they organize their own expensive party. But circumstances conspire and their family arranges the reception on the same day as their beach-party booking. They have no choice but to compromise. They decide to go to the family wedding first and then escape to the secret beach wedding party with their friends. Having partied with the relatives during the day and staying relatively sober, they make a break for the exclusive beach party. But when their extended family uncover the newlyweds’ disappearance and turn up at the cool, Euro style beach party… all the provincial wedding hell breaks loose.
Roma’s colorful drinking-class family from the wrong-side of the tracks provide numerous merry moments. The traditional touring around the city to take in the historical sites ends up with one drunken uncle removing a bronze head from one of the city’s monuments and then taking it with him everywhere he goes. Roma’s older brother, a skinny, tattooed hothead with a prison past and an explosive temper is psychopathically in love with the generously endowed Ksykha. He stops at nothing to proclaim his love or get into a brawl; and these two emotional states are connected. Roma’s mother (Iuliia Stadik) is large, warm and full of crude jokes with a strong connection to the simple people from her family who are full of folk wisdom that they continually share with Natasha, especially the best treatment against hookworms. In contrast, Natasha’s family are wealthy and seem more sophisticated. Her stepfather is so prepared to impress his guests that he dispenses with the town’s best tamada and invites, all the way from Moscow, Russia’s best known comedian Sergei Svetlakov (as himself) to make the speeches, tell jokes and keep the party rolling. The only problem is that, try as he might, Svetlakov eventually succumbs to a drunken madness ranging from stupor to debauchery. But while there are clear and comic contrasts here between Natasha and Roma’s families, the greatest disparity is with the beach party elite. They look down on the newlyweds; they are too cool for sacred Russian traditions; and they are terrified of vomit on the carpet and recoil from the traditional excess and exuberance of Russian weddings.
At the heart of the film stands a battle of values between a desire for a breezy, sophisticated, fashionable, Western-style wedding on a beach surrounded by cool, beautiful, easy-going people and a traditional, hearty, drunken, wild, spirited and all-inclusive wedding with different family members—many of whom are completely out of place, but they are family after all and a wedding is a rare opportunity to bring all these misfits together. The setting in Gelendzhik, a beautiful coastal town on the Black Sea, mixes provincialism with luxury and folksiness with aspirational opulence in a climate that is always sunny. The idea that you can do something differently in Russia, such as stage a Euro-style wedding, is narratively squashed: traditions rule. If you choose to deviate from tradition, it will be very expensive, and the alternative will be heartless; eventually tradition will catch up anyway in the form of a large, extended and drunken family. It’s not really a fair battle, as there is a barely concealed contempt for the glamorous, modern and non-authentic wedding.
As a popular romantic comedy, the film shares some comic sketch elements with Iurii Mamin’s Wedding Kisses (Gor’ko, 1998), the hysterical wedding energy of Timur Bekmambetov’s earlier production Lucky Troubles (Vykrutasy, dir. Levan Gabriadze, 2011) and optimistic flavor of Love with an Accent (Liubov’ s aktsentom, dir. Rezo Gigineishvili, 2012). However, the film style here is more innovative while veering away from an easy descent into drunken absurdism. Russian weddings as sacred rituals have a strong sociological element, and Kiss Them All! balances this with a style that is both contemporary and edgy (actually, the edginess of the handheld camerawork is carefully balanced between authenticity and watchability). The wedding video device is effective in its out-of-focus spontaneity. It is motivated by Roma’s annoying younger brother, Dima’s (Sergei Gabrielian Junior) obsession with filming everything. This allows for an observational documentary mode mixed with often clumsy direct camera addresses, inane interviews and remarkable access to events with its amateurish aesthetic that belies careful orchestration. It appears at once genuine and as steb,reminiscent of Bakhyt Kilibaev’s disingenuously naive “MMM” advertising campaign in the early 1990s. Director Kryzhovnikov won the NIKA and Hollywood Reporter/Russian Edition prizes for Best Debut Feature. He developed his style working a range of television serials: Valera TV (2012) is closest in form to Kiss Them All! In pre-empting its wedding video-operator first-person point-of-view with a comic sketch show filmed in the style of a video-journal about Valera and his world of weddings, funerals and unusual locals. Prior to that, his most interesting short film, which features two of the lead actors from Kiss Them All!, Happy Purchase (Schastlivaia pokupka 2010) is a near-future science fiction about a young woman who, after a failed relationship, purchases a male robot that adapts to her whims, but with unexpected consequences. Kiss Them All! underlines the increasing interconnections between film and television, denying any conventional hierarchies by appropriating TV personalities, themes and aesthetics shamelessly. Kryzhovnikov is already in production on Kiss Them All! 2 slated for release in October 2014. The focus this time is on another sacred Soviet/Russian ritual—the funeral. The drinking slogan could well remain the same.
What makes Kiss Them All! remarkable, notwithstanding its controversial status among audiences, is its profitability. Released in October 2013, the film accumulated some $25.5 million and claimed the mantle of the most profitable film in Russian history. 2013 was a big year for Russian box office hits with Stalingrad ($51.8m) and Legend No. 17 ($29.5m) the standouts. But with a modest budget of only $1.3 million, the cleverly folksy low-budget comedy made far more profit. It usurped the most-profitable-film mantle previously held by Bekmambetov’s romantic comedy Irony of Fate: The Continuation (Ironiia sud’by. Prodolzhenie) that earned $49.92 million in 2008 but with a budget of $5 million (modest when considering the caliber of the cast).
Bekmambetov’s production and distribution company Bazelevs has produced the majority of recent box office hits with its proven formulae of contemporized nostalgia, a visually splendid revisioning of traditional tropes, genres and formats, as well as a commitment to folk-comedy within a clearly prevailing national context. This context is surprisingly multicultural in celebrating the diversity of background, wealth and even sobriety to argue that it is in difference that Russians are united— as long as it is a bitter-sweet, diametrically oppositional difference that can then be brought back to stasis built on the unproblematic and de-politicized notion of tradition. Bazelevs’ box-office blitzing formula relies on blending: television comedy and cinema; low brow, crude humor with sacred, heartfelt rituals; and highlighting the polarities of Russian culture before wrapping everything into exuberant unity.
University of New South Wales
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Romendik, Dmitrii (2013), “Russians’ love-hate relationship with the hit film ‘Gorko!’,” Russia Beyond the Headlines, 14 December,
Anon. (2014), “The most profitable and most loss-making domestic films distributed in Russia in 2013,” Kino Business, 10 January.
Kiss Them All! , Russia, 2013
Color, 100 minutes
Director: Zhora Kryzhovnikov
Screenwriters: Aleksei Kozakov, Nikolai Kylikov and Zhora Kryzhovnikov
DoP: Dmitrii Gribanov
Production Design: Elena Travkina
Cast: Sergei Svetlakov, Egor Koreshkov, Iuliia Alexandrova, Ian Tsapnik, Elena Valiushkina, Iuliia Stadnik, Vasilii Kortukov
Producers: Il’ia Burets, Dmitrii Nelidov, Sergei Svetlakov, Timur Bekmambetov
Zhora Kryzhovnikov Kiss Them All! (Gor’ko!, 2013)
reviewed by Greg Dolgopolov© 2014