Issue 52 (2016)
Vasilii Sigarev: The Land of Oz (Strana OZ, 2015)
reviewed by Dane Reighard© 2016
After fifteen years spent creating some of contemporary Russia’s most relentlessly grim dramas for stage and screen, with his third feature film The Land of Oz Vasilii Sigarev presents his first ostensible comedy, and a New Year’s comedy at that. Yet lest anyone suspect the former enfant terrible has lost his edge, rest assured this holiday tale is no The Irony of Fate (Ironiia sud’by, ili S legkim parom, 1975) or Six Degrees of Separation (Elki, 2010). In an interview with Ekaterinburg’s Nasha gazeta, Sigarev refers to his film as the “anti-Elki” and states that its intended audience is anybody who has no interest in Timur Bekmambetov’s blockbuster (Zuzenkova 2015). Indeed, while The Land of Oz largely succeeds as a comedy, the provoked laughs are almost uniformly uncomfortable, and Sigarev’s depiction of Russia remains as vulgar, violent and grotesque as ever.
The film begins on New Year’s Eve in Sigarev’s native Ekaterinburg. Lena Shabadinova (Iana Troianova), having recently moved from Malaia Lialia, is running late for her first day of work at a kiosk due to her sister being thrown from a window by an ex-lover. After an unsuccessful attempt at hitching a ride with a barely-conscious junkie, Lena begins a picaresque odyssey in search of her kiosk on Torforezov Street, encountering a colorful and disreputable cast of characters along the way. She first meets Roman (Gosha Kutsenko), a drunken buffoon who nearly kills himself while mishandling fireworks, and then “the Bard” Aleksei (Vladimir Simonov), a married man who takes Lena to his apartment to seduce her. When she rejects his physical advances, he is content to masturbate in front of her before falling asleep. As New Year’s Eve turns to New Year’s Day, Lena’s continuing adventures lead her to the home of a hospitable Avon saleswoman (Inna Churikova) and her aggressive boxer sons, a brief stint behind bars with two malicious prostitutes, and finally to a hospital bed.
As Lena circles her way through the city, a parallel storyline occurs inside the kiosk, where Andrei (co-scenarist Andrei Il’enkov) waits for her to relieve him of his duty. An aspiring writer, Andrei spends the holiday with the cantankerous Duke (Aleksandr Bashirov) drunkenly deliberating issues of human nature and sexuality, all with a strong emphasis on the scatalogical. In this sub-plot Sigarev’s theatrical roots are most apparent, as the two middle-aged men confined to a single small space essentially re-enact Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, with Lena as the Godot-figure who will never arrive. That Andrei and Duke’s alternating cozy and antagonistic friendship reaches a breaking point when the latter attempts to perform oral sex on the former only reinforces the comparison to Vladimir and Estragon, whose relationship is often interpreted as homoerotic and quasi-marital.
Thematically, the two storylines are connected by one of Sigarev’s favorite recurring motifs: the futility of interpersonal communication and the subsequent recourse to physical violence, or what Birgit Beumers and Mark Lipovetsky (2009:153) refer to as “cynical violence as a universal language of social communication.” Beginning with the first scene, in which Lena’s sister plans to confront her Greek man by “ringing the doorbell, dragging him into the stairwell and then roughing him up,” nearly every episode of the film finds its characters opting for varying degrees of assault instead of words that they are either unable or unwilling to use or understand. In another scene at the kiosk, Duke reads one of Andrei’s short stories and entirely misses the point. When Andrei responds to his misguided criticisms with a dismissive “Whatever,” Duke proceeds to throw a bottle of his excrement at him. Even the generally passive Lena, who finds herself on the receiving end of most of the film’s violence, can make the pair of prostitutes in her holding cell stop mocking her only by beating them with a sex toy.
Sigarev has explored this social phenomenon thoroughly throughout his career, and while his previous depictions of violence are often heightened to the point of absurdity, they have never been so consistently, explicitly humorous. Contrast, for example, the defenestration of Lena’s sister, which ultimately results in the visual gag of her wearing plaster underpants for her broken pelvis, with the tragic climax of Sigarev’s first play Plasticine (Plastilin, 2000), in which the young protagonist is thrown to his death from a window by the men who had raped him earlier. On paper, the litany of abuses endured by Lena throughout the film—in addition to Aleksei’s lewd conduct toward her, she is groped and wrestled, knocked out by a boxer’s right hook, and shot in the head with a firework—reads as harrowing and sadistic. Yet Troianova’s stoic performance beautifully captures Lena’s simultaneous exasperated resignation and calm bewilderment to the absurdities befalling her without denying her the audience’s sympathy. Unlike The Wizard of Oz’s Dorothy, Lena does not want to return to her hometown but laments to Roman late in the film that she may have to because she “couldn’t make a life for [herself]” in Ekaterinburg. The violent carnival of the city does not scare her away; her doubts are merely practical, for she assumes she will have no job by the end of her adventure. On the contrary, her ability to throw a punch as well as she can take one suggests that she is right at home in such a milieu.
Sigarev has described his film in a KinoPoisk interview as following in the tradition of Gogol (Tsulaia 2015); indeed, the tone he achieves in his film skillfully expresses the “laughter through tears” of Gogol’s world as famously described by Vissarion Belinsky. It would be inaccurate to state that Sigarev’s Weltanschauung has grown brighter or more hopeful in the years since Plasticine, but the disarmingly wistful final scene of The Land of Oz suggests a deepening acceptance of life amid the world’s ugliness. As Lena lies in a hospital bed flanked by Roman, who has just saved her life, he begins to perform a song he wrote for her: “The night always turns into day / where love defeats the pain / There, you and I can be revived / Or we can just slip by again.” Lena’s eyes well up, but the song is interrupted by a nurse: “Shut up, you fucking troubadours. Silence!” Everyone in the room reacts with quiet giggles, a literal illustration of “laughter through tears.”
Especially noteworthy here in the context of Sigarev’s oeuvre is the total absence of death, either as a plot device or as a specter looming over the proceedings. Lena Shabadinova and the assorted residents of Ekaterinburg are perhaps the most resilient he has created, and the New Year’s setting further underscores the themes of survival and emotional fortitude. Ekaterinburg is no different on January 1 than it was on December 31, but Sigarev’s characters continue to live on, having managed to slip by again for another year.
University of California-Los Angeles
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Beumers, Birgit and Mark Lipovetsky (2009). Performing Violence, Bristol and Chicago: Intellect.
Tsulaia, Dariko (2015). “Vasilii Sigarev: ‘Davno khochu sniat’ kino pro zombi’”, KinoPoisk, 16 November,
Zuzenkova, Iunna (2015), “Interv’iu s rezhisserom ‘Strany OZ’ Vasiliem Sigarevym: ‘Ia sdelal kino dlia tekh, komu ne interesny ‘Elki’’”, Nasha gazeta Ekaterinburg, 28 November.
The Land of Oz, 2015, Russia
Color, 94 minutes.
Director Vasilii Sigarev
Scriptwriters Vasilii Sigarev, Andrei Il’enkov
DoP Dmitrii Uliukaev
Production Design Anton Polikarpov
Editing Dasha Danilova
Cast: Iana Troianova, Gosha Kutsenko, Andrei Il’enkov, Aleksandr Bashirov, Evgenii Tsyganov, Vladimir Simonov, Inna Churikova, Svetlana Kamynina, Iuliia Snigir’, Alisa Khazanova, Dar’ia Ekamasova
Producers Sofiko Kiknavelidze, Dmitrii Uliukaev
Production Beloe zerkalo [White Mirror]
World Rights Antipode Sales&Distribution
Vasilii Sigarev: The Land of Oz (Strana OZ, 2015)
reviewed by Dane Reighard© 2016