Issue 47 (2015)

Igor' Voloshin: Express Train Moscow-Russia (Skoryi «Moskva – Rossiia», 2014)

reviewed by Vincent Bohlinger© 2015

skory The well-known and award-winning director Igor' Voloshin has made quite a departure in his latest film, Express Train Moscow-Russia. Those of us familiar with the seriousness and overt ambitiousness of his earlier features may raise an eyebrow—perhaps even be tickled—to see him wholeheartedly belly-flop into the murky, muddy recesses of low-brow comedy. The film opens with a credit sequence showing railroad tracks alongside Russian cityscapes and landmarks that split and spin across the screen, all while accompanied by Johann Strauss’s waltz “By the Beautiful Blue Danube.” The soundtrack immediately brings to mind 2001: A Space Odyssey, and the connection is made even stronger by the graphic similarity between the spiraling and twisting railroad tracks and Kubrick’s iconic rotating space station. Such a reference is curious, though perhaps it announces Voloshin’s apparent moxie. Kubrick famously sought to make films in widely disparate genres, and Voloshin seems to be confirming here that he is following in those very big footsteps. Having already dabbled in the drug/gangster film (Nirvana, 2008), war film (Olympius Inferno, 2009), autobiographical coming-of-age (I Am, 2009), and social drama (Bedouin, 2011), here again he offers something different.

skoryExpress Train Moscow-Russia adheres to the time-tested formulas of the romantic comedy and road movie. Mila (Margarita Levieva) is a Russian-born American actress known less for her onscreen professional work than for her hard-partying ways and public debauchery. She has returned to Russia on a publicity tour before setting off for a new film project in Vladivostok, but disaster strikes at a photo-op. Although Mila is afraid of flying, she gets into a WWII-era fighter plane with a war hero pilot. The deaf old codger mishears the multiple requests not to take her into the air and then performs a series of loop-de-loop maneuvers and stunts that leave Mila physically ill and so severely traumatized that she later has a panic attack on the plane to Vladivostok and must resort to traveling by train. On the train she meets Serezha (Sergei Svetlakov), a burgeoning internet sensation who is also on the way to Vladivostok after having signed a contract to take a video of himself there with an Amur tiger and a falling star. Both are in trouble, certainly in their professional lives, if not also in their personal lives. Mila’s project in Vladivostok is her last-ditch chance in the industry and her career will be ruined if she does not make it there by the time shooting starts in seven days. Serezha has drunkenly agreed to get over a million YouTube views or else he will lose his car, apartment, and dacha. Mila is dating her controlling manager (Michael Madsen), who readily enables her bad habits. She is traveling on the train alone, and Serezha has already hooked up with a hot-blooded train attendant (Ingeborga Dapkunaite).

skory A cartoon map informs us that it is 9,038 kilometers from Moscow to Vladivostok. As one can imagine, such a distance will not be easily traveled. Mila is at first shocked to learn that she must share her compartment with Serezha, but in no time she is enjoying his and everyone else’s company in the more public platskartnyi vagon. Mila and Serezha grow close, but the jealous train attendant ends up literally kicking Mila off the train. Mila finds herself in Sliudianka, 3,772 kilometers from her destination. All is not lost, however, as Serezha gets off the train—putting his own career at risk—in order to try and help Mila.

skory The film’s title seemingly suggests that our voyage is taking us to the “real” Russia, the Russia of chickens on a train, lusty young peasant women who wear traditional dress and look like models, and kidnapping Caucasian style. We experience this Russia partly through the fish-out-of-water foreigner Mila. In case we ever forget that she is American, she wears a cowboy hat, cowboy boots, blue jeans, a t-shirt emblazoned with an eagle, and leather jacket—and she carries a cell phone bejeweled with the American flag. In response to this Russia, she is often dumbfounded or shocked, occasionally stuck-up and overly privileged, but usually soon game. But we also experience Russia through Serezha, who often films his own adventures. Cell-phones serve as cameras throughout the film, and we often switch back and forth between the action as it takes place and the footage of this action as the characters film it themselves.

skory Comedy is often said to be local—even untranslatable—and the film seems to take a fairly aggressive stance in support of this idea. At the beginning of the film, a voiceover narrator tells us that Russia is a great but very enigmatic country—neither Europe nor Asia, neither first world nor second world. The narrator returns throughout the film to give us occasional lessons that aim to characterize Russia, such as Russia is a multinational country, Russians have a generous soul, and Russians do not surrender. These lessons are presented alongside YouTube videos showing outlandish home videos of Russia—the kind of footage one finds in those glorious, endlessly entertaining YouTube compilations under titles such as “I love Russia” or “Driving in Russia.” These interludes give context and thematize the action of the film that follows as a distinct variation of Russianness. The comedy of the film, therefore, is branded as Russian. Perhaps it is distinctly Russian to witness a scheming, scrappy babushka arm herself with a broken vodka bottle to fight off those she had just swindled into buying her fake moonshine. But is Russian roulette really Russian? And what is particularly Russian about an id-driven dwarf convict of super-human strength applauding this bout of roulette with pig hooves while a fork is stuck in his head? Or vampiric country lasses and muscular mermen? Or a tiger’s point-of-view shot showing the superimposed head of a fellow tiger on our hero as “Unchained Melody” plays on the soundtrack? If the film is not a catalog of Russian comedy proper, then it is certainly presenting itself as a showcase for Russian comedic sensibility.

skory Art-house films will often incorporate clear markers of national identity to distinguish themselves on the global festival circuit. It is interesting that a film such as Express Train Moscow-Russia, which has no overt pretensions to art cinema, would follow a similar strategy. The branding of any particular style of comedy as “Russian” is predicated on an international mindset, if only to set up this comedy as distinct from or in opposition to other expressions of comedy. This strategic branding of comedy has served the film’s star well. Sergei Svetlakov is a familiar face from the Russian television show “Nasha Russia” (“Our Russia”), in which “Nasha”/”Our” is in Russian but “Russia” is in English. This mixed-language title conveys a sense of outsiders looking in – what they label as “Russia” is ours. There is a marked assertion of nationalism—even patriotism—in such thinking.

skory Svetlakov maintains the same slacker doofus comedic shtick that has made him a star on screens big and small as one of Russia’s biggest box office attractions, but this shtick is somehow bigger and more meaningful because it is supposedly emblematic of something far greater than Svetlakov’s character himself. The international angle is seemingly played up in order to appeal to the domestic audience. One highlight of the film involves a typical Svetlakov stunt: with a cigarette lighter he ignites the hair on his belly, and the flames quickly flash all the up to his chest and leave his reddish-blonde fur a coarse charred black. (We know this is a highlight because this footage is shown more than once in the film.) A drunken lack of inhibition and gleeful self-destruction in and of themselves do not seem exclusively Russian. I would argue that Russia does not maintain a monopoly on tragicomic ass-backwards buffoonery—just ask anyone who has done time on a college campus—yet I must admit that the humor throughout the film often does feel distinctly, recognizably Russian. The film manages a remarkable feat (unremarkable to the cynic?): it stakes national identity on a particular kind of low-brow humor and is rewarded with great domestic box office returns.

Vincent Bohlinger
Rhode Island College

Comment on this article on Facebook

Express Train Moscow-Russia, Russian Federation, 2014
Color, 90 min.
Director: Igor' Voloshin
Screenplay: Denis Rodimin, Sergei Svetlakov, Igor' Voloshin
Director of Photography: Dmitrii Iashonkov
Production Design & Costume: Irina Grazhdankina
Sound: Aleksandr Kopeikin
Costume: Irina Grazhdankina
Makeup: Ol'ga Miroshnichenko
Editing: Aleksandr Andriushchenko
Executive Producer: Igor' Voloshin
Producers: Aleksandr Orlov, Sergei Svetlakov, Igor' Voloshin
Cast: Sergei Svetlakov, Margarita Levieva, Michael Madsen, Ingeborga Dapkunaite, Maks+100500, Viktor Proskurin, Pavel Derevianko, Iurii Stoianov, Ol'ga Simonova, Artur Gurgenian, Spartak Kandaurov, Ivan Urgant
Production Company: Bulldozerfilms

Igor' Voloshin: Express Train Moscow-Russia (Skoryi «Moskva – Rossiia», 2014)

reviewed by Vincent Bohlinger© 2015