Issue 50 (2015) : Special Feature KiKu-50
Konstantin Buslov: Loot (Bablo, 2011)
reviewed by Greg Dolgopolov© 2015
The honor of wearing the title of one of the “most important films of the post-Soviet era” would indubitably need to be worn by an example of trashy, low-brow, commercial but comical, soulful cinema. It would need to be a film with few pretentious to being considered the best film of the epoch. While my esteemed colleagues will be fighting for metaphoric and original art-house selections, I will champion trashy and transient cinema. Aside from all the great vampire-themed films of the past twenty years, one of the trashiest and most representative films of the era is undoubtedly Konstantin Buslov’s Loot with its farcical approach to rehabilitating the criminal life of the 1990s. Paradoxically for my thesis, the film is a festival award winner: writer-director Konstantin Buslov won Best Debut Feature at Kinotavr in 2011. A further paradox is that, as a seemingly commercial film, it failed to make up its expenditure ($2.5 million) through the box office receipts ($2.25 million). Film critic Aleksandr Shpagin noted this paradox, “when the loot falls from the heavens, it becomes an absurdly heavy load, and, oddly enough, it becomes not just unnecessary, superfluous, but torturously dangerous. Out of this paradoxical situation enormous comic potential can be squeezed, because humor is born of paradox. But paradox also begets contemplation. And out of this truth is born” (Shpagin 2011). Loot is a trashy black comedy, but one that unsuspectingly provides an insight into the zeitgeist while balancing the contradictions between a commercial genre film and a freewheeling auteur production.
Buslov’s first feature film is a gangster thriller cum black comedy or, as it was billed, a “corruption comedy.” It is shaped as a multi-stranded narrative following a suitcase of cash that is passed on, stolen and re-stolen by disparate groups across all social strata. Everyone who comes in contact with the loot hopes in the salvation that the money will bring them. The plot of this relay narrative follows a briefcase with one million forged Euros, which was intended as a bribe for tax inspectors. It is stolen by two Georgian petty thieves (Kakha and Vazha) and then stolen again by a corrupt cop, and stolen again by another group of criminals, and then stolen again... The briefcase goes on a journey from Moscow to Kharkov and back to Moscow, and everyone who comes in contact with it dreams of all the good things they would do with the money—before having the case stolen by another dreamer. The case is anxiously tracked by the cops, businessmen, tattooed sex workers, Georgian petty criminals, Ukrainian Mafiosi and Russian heavies. In fact, everyone is searching for the slippery million Euros. Displaying a remarkably astute investment strategy, some plan to use the money to open a petrol station, others dream of a hotel in Spain, while others again just want to grab the money and run. They are all searching for the briefcase, but no one can hold on to the loot for long.
Loot explores the dirty underbelly of contemporary Russia with Mafia, thugs, prostitutes, corruption at every level and various government officials trying to trick and steal from one another. And yet it is all good fun. Loot is a modern allegory, and one of the finest Russian gangster crime capers, abounding with witty dialogue and a virtual training manual in corruption techniques for sequestering government money. It is a tale of how a businessman unwilling to pay his taxes attempts to bribe corrupt bureaucrats with forged Euros, and how that money goes freewheeling across Russia, eventually losing all sense of ownership and authenticity but having made the most unorthodox human connections.
Corruption and deception are at the heart of Loot’s universe. Every social layer is riven with deceit, aside from the humble Russian worker. Everyone in pursuit of the briefcase is united by their involvement in various levels of corruption and their desire to get rich. Loot is one of those rare gangster thrillers that exhibit a light-hearted touch amidst the sharp talk and violence. The tale of a stolen briefcase full of money and the chase to get it back is so common as to make it a crime sub-genre. Loot fulfils all the gangster genre requirements but adds a metaphysical level. This is a film about more than a million Euros: it is a film about hope and the fate of Russia as it is gripped once again in the clutches of endemic corruption and injustice, set amidst shabby lower-middle class poverty.
The metaphor of a case of loot exchanging hands (that, it later turns out, is in fact counterfeit) is an accurate analysis of the present national psyche—stealing what has previously been stolen, because no one can hold on to their wealth for long. Echoing the Marxists slogan “all property is theft,” the current slogan could be “all money is stolen,” because it is impossible to tell to whom the money belongs, other than to imagine that it is stolen public money and that the loot belongs to no one but the pick-pocketed community.
After a wave of crime films in the 1990s, the genre experienced a decline in Russia. Even rarer in recent years is the criminal black comedy that re-appropriates the deadly serious criminal tales of the 1990s as dark farce. Loot has a similar style and energy to Aleksei Balabanov’s Dead Man’s Bluff (Zhmurki, 2005) with its black humor challenging the criminal world celebrated in the 1990’s narratives, but without the same epic historical origins. There have been few quality Russian gangster comedies, no matter how much critics proclaim the deep influence of Quentin Tarantino on Russian cinema. Comedy lies just beneath the brutal realism in films such as 8 ½ Dollars (dir. Grigorii Konstantinopolskii, 2011) or Mama, Don’t Cry (Mama ne goriui, dir. Maksim Pezhemskii, 1998), where the violence and comedy are often presented as an ironic folk logic that ties the modern world to a mythical past, which naturalizes the questionable activities and disables critical engagement. However, Loot is also a trashy farce full of clichés: non-ethnic Russian criminals are dumb, beautiful women are damned with loose morals and poor choices, and there is a carnivalization of criminality.
Stylistically Loot is impressive for its sound design and fluid editing that stitches together the episodic structure, as well as its innovative camera work (watch for the sunlight shot between Iana’s legs—it’s quite startling). It is a loving homage to the early films of Guy Ritchie, mixing heavy criminal types with a farcical narrative structure. The film delivers plot surprises in following the briefcase’s odyssey around all sorts of far-from-glamorous criminal hangouts. In the film’s world, it is the cops who live well, while the envious crooks, dreaming of living a normal life with a million Euros, are always scrounging for an opportunity amidst the impoverished Soviet-era detritus. The comedy comes in part from the criminals’ battler, devil-may-care attitude.
Loot premiered at the Kinotavr Open Russian Film Festival in 2011, where it won the Best Debut award. The international premiere was in September 2011 at the 8th Russian Resurrection Film Festival in Australia where director Konstantin Buslov was a guest. The film received an unprecedented audience response and provoked boisterous discussion that turned into commercial success. Produced by CTB’s Sergei Selianov, the film does not look or feel like a first feature with its mature script, robust performances and confident aesthetic choices. Crime films run in the family: Konstantin Buslov is the older brother of Petr Buslov who sprang to fame in 2002 with the gangster hit Bimmer (Bumer). Konstantin appeared briefly in Bimmer as an actor, and since 2001 has been working with Sergei Selianov at CTB as an executive producer. Indeed, Buslov was the executive producer of Bimmer and its 2006 sequel, Bimmer 2.
This crime corruption comedy is pleasingly contemporary. It is trashy and light but it captures the audiences’ instinct for deciphering a clear metaphor of stealing what has already been stolen in an endless chain of theft and hope for a bright non-criminal future that is continuously interrupted by more theft. This chain of universal criminality unifies people and nations from various social strata without allowing them to suspect that what seems real is in fact counterfeit and all that is solid melts into air. Loot is a collection of paradoxes that quintessentially defines the post-Soviet era in cinema.
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Shpagin, Aleksandr. 2011. “Nadezhda na ‘Bablo’,” Cinematheque 11 June.
Loot, Russia, 2011
96 minutes, color, 1:1.85, Dolby Digital 5.1
Director and Scriptwriter: Konstantin Buslov
Cinematographer: Levan Kapanadze
Designer Maksim Fesiun
Cast: Maria Berseneva, Roman Madianov, Giya Gogishvili, Georgi Gurguliya, Mikhail Meskhi, Iakov Kucherevskii, Vladimir Sychev, Kirill Safonov, Sergei Nasibov, Sergei Bolotaev
Production Film Company: СТВ
Producer: Sergei Sel’ianov
Konstantin Buslov: Loot (Bablo, 2011)
reviewed by Greg Dolgopolov© 2015