Issue 48 (2015)

Ilmar Raag: I Won’t Come Back (Ia ne vernus’, 2014)

reviewed by Anna Batori © 2015

i wont come backIlmar Raag’s latest film showcases the internal-physical journey of the orphan Anya (Polina Pushkaruk) and her newly-joined companion Kristina (Viktoriia Lobachova) who, in the hope of finding the latter’s grandmother, embarks on a voyage to Kazakhstan. During their mission, the two parentless girls establish a closer, mother-daughter-like relationship and Anya soon finds herself in a role that is unfamiliar for both of them.

Anya, a successful graduate student, seems to have broken with her orphan past and lives her everyday life, lecturing at a university and meeting her supervisor for romantic encounters. Although her lover is a family man, she hopes to marry him one day, yet this prospect is constantly adjourned without a definite date, making Anya more and more frustrated, impatient and jealous.

i wont come backOne day, the young student’s rugged past returns when one of her ex-classmates from the orphanage appears at her home and asks Anya to store a package for him until the end of the day. For old times’ sake, Anya agrees, although it soon turns out that the bag is filled with drugs, thus getting her into huge trouble. When the police do not believe her when she claims that she did not know what the bag contained, she faces imprisonment; she decides to escape by jumping out of the window. From this point onward, Anya goes into hiding in the city: changing her outfit, she turns into a vagabond teenager and, using her past experience, gets herself into an orphanage. There she meets Kristina, a fourteen-year old girl who is continuously abused by the other children. Therefore, she plans to run away, and she gets her chance when Anya asks her help in finding a way out of the building. Secretly, Kristina starts following the older girl and later convinces her to travel to Kazakhstan to find her only family, a grandmother. From this point, the two lonely and desperate girls have no one else to count on but each other and, as they have no plans and future perspectives, they decide to hitchhike on Russia’s endless, vast roads. When Anya learns that the charges against her have been dropped and she could continue her life, and love with her supervisor, she is already far away from home and, most importantly, does not want to abandon Kristina, who desperately wants to find her grandmother. They carry on the journey on the road: the joint adventure soon comes to an end when Kristina gets hit by a car and dies. Anya is now alone but, instead of returning home, decides complete the journey, crossing the Kazakh-Russian border. After arriving in Kristina’s village, she finds the grandmother, who mistakenly identifies Anya as her lost granddaughter and takes the girl under her wings.

i wont come backRaag’s story builds on the genre of the road movie while elegantly incorporating some of the bittersweet elements of the domestic drama, thus creating a unique, heart-rending and adventurous mixture. In this film, Russia’s cold and deserted landscape and people play a key role and become as important as the representation of the two girls’ intimate, albeit stormy relationship. Anya and Kristina fight with the merciless winter as much as they do so with each other. Until the very end, Anya counts on returning to her life as a graduate student and makes several attempts to leave Kristina. However, as they get closer to each other, Anya seems to discover her own self in the younger girl, thus identifying herself with the orphan teenager while, at the same time, developing motherly feelings towards Kristina. In this ambiguous situation, Anya functions as a responsible leader, who would not leave her daughter alone but who also, at times, steps into Kristina’s shoes and behaves like a rebellious, vulnerable teenager. What demonstrates Raag’s excellence is that the Estonian director is capable of accurately presenting Anya’s complex personality and successfully modulating her character changes. As an orphan, Anya is unfamiliar with the parent-role, which presents a scary situation that she has to deal with, experiencing motherhood’s positive and negative sides at once. She gets a lot of love and care from Kristina, without knowing how to deal with it and/or respond to it. For this reason, she remains cold and distant and tells her new-found companion that she is incapable of loving people and so does not have any feelings towards Kristina. As a further punishment, she leaves the young girl alone in a gloomy graveyard while hiding behind a tomb, thus watching how Kristina slowly collapses. This scene is not only the climax of the film but the culmination of the fight of Anya’s two sides. Kristina calls for the mother-figure squeakily: she trembles from fear, weeps and conjures Anya’s help while ramblingly asking the older girl to come back. At first, Anya resists the begging but then rushes to the girl and embraces Kristina. This is the point where the student leaves her other role behind and steps forward as a mother: she holds the teenager in an embryo-posture, tries to calm her down while caressing the hair of the crying girl. Correspondingly, in the second half of the film she protects and loves Kristina like her own daughter and does not question the purpose of their travel to Kazakhstan anymore. As soon Anya accepts her mother-role, however, she has to face the death of her “daughter”’ who is crashed by a car while sleeping on the bench of a bus stop; what is more, in the middle of the deserted, snowy landscape, Anya is forced to bury Kristina’s body on her own, thus going through the process of a symbolic abortion whereby she is deprived of her mother-role and finally identifies herself with the young girl. Anya thus becomes Kristina and continues the journey to Kazakhstan where she then finds the family that she has always been longing for.

i wont come backThe tension between Anya and Kristina is further illustrated by Russian nature, which the underdressed, homeless girls have to fight against. Although the unremitting rain, cold and fog embitter the travelers, Raag compensates the austere images of the landscape with the inhabitants’ friendliness, as they always assist the girls. So much so that the people’s care becomes nearly unbelievable throughout the film: wherever they turn up in Russia, be it a grocery shop, a bakery or the Kazakh train, the inhabitants’ kindliness towards the two vagabond girls has no limits. Feeling for them, they let the orphans eat and travel for free, which draws an astonishingly positive, albeit rather unrealistic picture of contemporary Russia.

Raag’s preoccupation with the story is less a critique of Russia than of the way the two girls build a mother-daughter relationship. The Estonian director features Kazakhstan as the counter-part of Russia. The foreign land is the mythical destination of the journey, a fairytale-like, utopian territory where the long-wanted dream of the united family comes true. This longing for domestic coherence is illustrated on the film’s visual level as well: whereas Russia’s weather and landscape are captured as gloomy and dismal as possible, Kazakhstan is depicted as a joyful, luminous terrain, with early spring sunlight and budding trees. This set of new circumstances also marks a new beginning in Anya’s life, who starts over in the country and finds a long-wanted family there. In this way, neighborhood functions as the only way to happiness: in order to find prosperity, the two girls had to leave their country, where Kristina—despite having a grandmother—had to go to the orphanage and endure her peers’ brutality whereas Anya could stay without a family, continuing the abusive relationship with her married lover.

i wont come backKazakhstan acts as the land of unfulfilled dreams, a territory of freedom and love. All this is pictured in the beautifully photographed final scene where Anya holds the grandmother’s lightning gift in her hands while the camera slowly pans away from her. We see the woman in a wide-angle shot as she is looking at her luminous toy, dressed up in pyjamas like a young school girl, while the bird’s eye view reveals Kazakhstan’s moonlit mountains in the background. This romantic image could have transformed the end into excessive kitsch, but thanks to Raag’s refined sense to visual balance, it only contributes to our understanding of the film as a sweetish, post-modern fairytale, where the youngest girl could not win it all.

At a glance, Raag’s film is about a physical journey to Kazakhstan. It cannot be solely categorized as a road movie, nor can it be fully labeled as a family drama. Certainly, Raag takes a bit from every genre, yet the background of the odyssey—the drivers’ personnel, the helpers’ intentions, or the nights of the girls—remain unexplored. Instead of examining these external conditions, the plot’s trajectory moves towards Anya’s and Kristina’s startling metamorphoses, as they experience motherhood and puberty during their journey, thus sensing the meaning of being part of a family. In this way, I Won’t Come Back functions like an instructive tale of homecoming—a heartfelt, sincere melodrama about belonging somewhere and becoming someone.

Anna Batori
University of Glasgow

Comment on this article on Facebook

I Won’t Come Back, Russia, Estonia, Finland, Belarus, Kazakhstan 2014
Language: Russian
Color, 109 minutes
Director: Ilmar Raag
Script: Iaroslava Pulinovich, with Oleg Gaze
DoP: Tuomo Hutri F.S.C.
Editor: Tambet Tasuja
Sound: Lev Ezhov
Music: Panu Aaltio
Production Design: Anastasiia Karimulina, Pavel Shappo
Cast: Polina Pushkaruk, Viktoriia Lobacheva, Andrei Astrakhantsev, Sergei Iatseniuk, Ol’ga Belinskaia,
Executive Producer: Natalia Smirnova
Producer: Natalia Drozd
Production Company: CTB Film Company, Amrion, Helsinki Filmi, Belarusfilm, Kazakhfilm

Ilmar Raag: I Won’t Come Back (Ia ne vernus’, 2014)

reviewed by Anna Batori © 2015

Updated: 20 Mar 15