Issue 55 (2017)

Filipp Korshunov: Total Transformation (Polnoe prevrashchenie, 2015)

reviewed by Volha Isakava© 2017

polnoe prevrashchenieTotal Transformation is Filipp Korshunov’s directorial debut. Korshunov is known for his previous work in short films and television, most notably the TV series The '80s (Vos'midesiatye, 2012–2016). The film is produced and written by Pavel Sanaev, the author of an acclaimed autobiographical novella Bury Me Behind the Baseboard (Pokhoronite menia za plintusom, 2008), and director of the moderately successful genre duology Hooked (Na igre, 2009). Similar to Sanaev’s other projects, Total Transformation is a middle-brow comedy with mostly unknown actors and a fairly modest budget. Despite support from the Ministry of Culture with promotion and distribution, the film was a box-office flop, earning about 10 per cent of its budget. The film works from an interesting gender-bending premise but unfortunately is mediocre in its execution, and deeply misogynist in its characterization.

The film centers around the travails of a young real estate professional, Dima (played by Oleg Gaas). Dima works for his father's agency and is the constant target of various forms of harassment: his father, an autocratic and domineering figure (played by Pavel Abdalov), tries aggressively to “man-up” the fairly inept and infantile Dima; his more successful co-worker, Maksim bullies Dima constantly, calling him a loser; he is snubbed by his workplace crush, the agency's receptionist; and he and his equally juvenile friend lose their man-cave hangout to some local but nondescript bullies, who could be gangsters or just cooler kids, really. If this all sounds like a high school comedy centered around cliques, exclusion and the search for one’s authentic self, this is all true of Total Transformation. It might as well have featured a teenage protagonist in the throngs of coming-of-age angst. Even the core group of characters in the film are staples of high school comedies: the best friend, the bully, the unsuspecting love interest (played by Arina Postnikova), and, finally, protagonist's parents, whose strained and abusive family dynamics become the centerpiece of this comedy of errors. By happenstance Dima meets a “mad scientist,” a character, modeled on “Doc” from the Back to the Future franchise, who rides around Moscow in a bus filled with tech wonders. His presence is unexplained yet benevolent. He insists on letting Dima try his newest device, one that allows the owner to switch someone’s appearance with that of anyone else, unbeknownst to the experimental subjects but visible to everyone else around them. Needless to say, Dima uses the device to improve his social and familial standing: he pretends to be his workplace crush’s boyfriend, executes a little revenge on his overbearing dad and other bullies, reconciles his parents with one another, and sleeps with his main love interest by pretending to be her estranged boyfriend. Predictably, the device goes haywire and the last twenty minutes of the film are based on multiple gags involving randomly swapped identities before the protagonist regains control and proves to be a “real man” to both his father and his girl. The body swapping gags in the film line up almost exclusively along gender, race and age lines, creating multiple incongruities and confusions that form the basis of the predominantly physical humor in the film, as well as its many cringe-worthy moments.

polnoe prevrashchenieTotal Transformation combines a classical comedy structure with a recognizable contemporary Hollywood sub-genre of comedy. Mostly, it is a comedy of situation with the mistaken gender identity trope at its core. This type of comedy, enshrined in the comedic canon by Shakespeare's Comedy of Errors and Twelfth Night, is well known in cinema and television: Some Like it Hot (1959) and Tootsie (1982) come to mind. In the Soviet tradition Hello, I am Your Aunt (Zdravstvuite, ia vasha tetia, 1975) is a prime example. In addition, the film is also a fairly typical “man-child” arrested development comedy in the vein of Judd Apatow’s and Seth Rogen’s comedies from the early 2000s. The “complete transformation” in the title refers, of course, not to the actual gender-bending gags in the film, but to the belated coming-of-age of the protagonist himself, and his final embrace of adulthood. The humor of the “man-child” comedy genre relies on physical farce and a juvenile fascination with the body, and it is used heavily in this film and other Russian analogs as well. The overarching (and highly moralizing) story of the film is a simplistic allegory of suddenly bestowed superpowers as the trial-and-error path to manhood and self-knowledge. In this way Total Transformation is not unlike Bruce Almighty (2003)or Absolutely Anything (2015) and other comedies in which a superpower, granted unexpectedly to an undeserving protagonist, leads to a path of moral amelioration and self-discovery accompanied by a fast-paced farce built on the unintended consequences of omnipotence.

polnoe prevrashchenieHowever, this film takes a bit of a departure from the evidently more progressive films of the “man-child” genre (yes, it sounds like an oxymoron) where gender and racial stereotypes are concerned. Women in Total Transformation are used purely as sexualized objects of male desire. They literally have no other narrative purpose, character quality or even dignity on screen. Even before the protagonist starts switching up female and male bodies, the film casually veers into the fantasy realm, as if driven by pure adolescent Id. In the first ten minutes of the film, Dima imagines his office crush walking away in suggestive lingerie instead of her (already suggestive enough) work clothes. The powers granted by the device only amplify what is already the core of the main character’s and the film’s sensibility. One of the first swaps performed by the main character involves fulfilling his friend’s sexual fantasy, which turns out to be a misogynistic and racist narrative related to black women. Their first swap victim then becomes a symbol of “African wild passions” (verbatim from the film) and is convinced by the protagonist (inexplicably so) to serve as a sexual surrogate for his mother to ignite the lost passion between his parents. In addition, the parental plot-line showcases an abusive relationship between Dima's parents, wherein abuse is justified because the mother is writing a doctoral dissertation and is, therefore, neglecting her household chores and conjugal duties. And then, the viewer is left to decide whether tricking his love interest into sleeping with him makes the protagonist an actual rapist. What makes matters worse is that these misogynistic bacchanalia are rendered with a completely earnest belief in the humorous potential of sexual objectification, racial exploitation, and the abuse of women. Even if we acknowledge the difference in historical and cultural context surrounding race and gender in contemporary Russia, the film takes it a little too far. It also seems that Total Transformation is not necessarily an outlier among other mainstream genre productions, particularly “youth-oriented” comedies and romcoms known as molodezhnoe kino. These “youth-oriented” films, exemplified by Sarik Andreasian’s productions or the stoner comedies put on screen by Comedy Club Russia, have consistently been criticized for exploitative and tasteless humor, and all exhibit similar ailments to those we see in Total Transformation.

polnoe prevrashchenieOne would be hard pressed to recommend Total Transformation as a film. Its lack of awareness as to its own shortcomings and biases is breathtaking. However, there is one interesting moment in the film that, in my opinion, conveys some sense of a real angst that casts doubt on an otherwise uncomplicated narrative of arrested development. At the end of the film the protagonist makes a passionate plea to his love interest, coming clean on his antics and claiming to be sincere in his intentions and motives––in other words, taking responsibility for his actions. In the meantime, however, the device goes haywire and Dima literally flickers in and out of a green pixelated virtual state, shuffling through all the various personas adopted at different points in the story. Effectively, Dima has no face of his own. He becomes an electronic phantom, a man not only without identity, but also without a body. For a brief moment, it seems that the film questions the reality and materiality of the archetypal “man-child” protagonist and his Id-driven desires, not to mention his ability to acquire a “proper” masculine identity. The very existence of the “man child” and his gaze at the center of the film's universe becomes uncertain and grotesque. For that one brief moment, the film pauses and becomes self-reflective, but it is still too short of a moment to make it worth the viewer's time.

Volha Isakava
Central Washington University

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Total Transformation, Russia, 2015
Color, 110 mins
Director: Filipp Korshunov
Producer: Iurii Obukhov, Aleksei Riazantsev, Pavel Sanaev
Script: Pavel Sanaev
Cinematography: Igor Buchnev
Production Design: Sergei Shalamov, Elena Petrunina, Veronika Kochergina
Sound: Sergei Dudakov
Editing: Irina Dolmat, Mariia Sergeenkova
Cast: Oleg Gaas, Arina Postnikova, Pavel Abdalov, Nail Abdrakhmanov, Egor Sal'nikov, Vitalii Kudriavtsev, Irina Krutik, Sergei Nikolaev, Aleksandra Bulycheva, Tatiana Okvame
Production: KaroProkat, Karo Production

Filipp Korshunov: Total Transformation (Polnoe prevrashchenie, 2015)

reviewed by Volha Isakava© 2017