Issue 62 (2018)

Kirill Pletnev: Light Up! (Zhgi!, 2017)

reviewed by Volha Isakava © 2018

zhgiLight Up! is a musical melodrama and the first full-length feature film of actor-turned-director Kirill Pletnev. The film’s leading actress, Inga Oboldina, received the Best Actress award at Kinotavr 2017. The film was not a great success at the box office, earning a little over 18 million with a budget of 45 million rubles. Critical response to the film has been mixed, and often negative, including a heated debate about the film’s execution of the genre formula at Kinotavr. Set in a women’s penitentiary in the Russian provinces, the film was shot mostly on location in the town of Nevel’ (Pskov region) on the grounds of a former juvenile correctional facility. The story focuses on a female prison guard, Alevtina (played by Oboldina), who has an impressive vocal range and loves to sing. Due to lack of formal education and a traumatic turn of events during her only performance as a child, she does not share her passion with anyone. As she celebrates her 40th birthday with her co-workers in prison, she is gifted a karaoke machine. Even though she refuses to sing in front of her friends, she later unleashes an operatic rendition of Alla Pugacheva’s hit song from 1985, “The Antique Clock” (“Starinnye chasy”). She is secretly taped by a prisoner, Maria Star (played by Viktoriia Isakova), who posts the video online where it subsequently goes viral. The video attracts attention from the Russian reality TV equivalent of “Voice, Light It Up!” (“Zazhigai”). Journalists descend upon the small town to discover the “new Pugacheva” and push Alevtina to enter the contest. Facing opposition from her husband, Sergei (played by Aleksei Shevchenkov), as well as her own trepidations, Alevtina initially refuses. She is then goaded and persuaded by Maria, formerly a professional musician, and ends up taking vocal lessons from her.

zhgiThe two women grow closer as Alevtina is encouraged to find her “feminine” side, apparently necessary for her to succeed in singing an in-your-face symbolic “Vissi D’Arte” aria from Puccini’s Tosca as her contest entry. Soon enough she appears more confident in her talent and kicks out the nay-sayer husband. Alevtina promptly transforms from an unsmiling prison guard in combat boots into a “sexy lady” clad in crimson evening dress and red stilettos. This transformation appears to be an allusion to the Soviet cult film Office Romance (Sluzhebnyi romans, dir. El’dar Riazanov, 1977). Light Up! enthusiastically embraces tired and old clichés steeped in misogyny: the objectification of Alevtina is unabashed and complete with a mani-pedi and a gaudy red dress that she proudly sports throughout the muddy streets of her decaying provincial town. The film also embraces a “beauty saves the world” cliché, using Tosca in a not-so-subtle nod to Shawshank Redemption (dir. Frank Darabont, 1994). At the same time this cornucopia of truisms is set in the world that is cold and inhumane. As a viewer, I was filled with despair at the sight of the dysfunctional patriarchal nuclear family, the provincial town that runs on corruption, and the main setting of the prison, the zona, full of abuse and human suffering. The film’s portrayal of the small town and the penitentiary reminded me of Iurii Bykov’s social dramas, such as The Major (Maior, 2013) and The Fool (Durak, 2014). Didactic and naturalistic in their premise, Bykov’s films unflinchingly examine the many failings of the social contract in today’s Russia. It is no coincidence that critic Denis Stupnikov (2017) called Light Up! a hodgepodge of a “criminal drama, a karaoke-comedy, and Leviathan.” Take the central conflict that propels the film forward: surprisingly, it is not the patriarchal conflict inside Alevtina’s family. The disagreement between Alevtina and her husband is fairly downplayed and is nostalgically scripted as an allusion to another Soviet mega-hit, Moscow Does Not Believe in Tears (Moskva slezam ne verit, dir. Vladimir Men’shov, 1980). In the finale of that film, spurned Gosha (played by Aleksei Batalov) reconciles with Katia (played by Vera Alentova), who eagerly serves him food, a metaphor for the unassailable position of the patriarch in the nuclear family. Alevtina’s husband also demands to maintain his status as a patriarch, and to be served food, but then, like Gosha, eventually comes around to support his wife. The principal conflict in the film is not about art or nuclear family, but about state violence and the institution of the prison. It is grounded in rape and murder. A young prisoner, tellingly identified in the credits only as the “Beautiful” (krasivaia; played by Veronika Kuznetsova) is harassed by a sadistic prison guard identified in the credits as the “Jerk” (zhlob; played by Nikita Kologrivyi), who, we learn, is the nephew of an unnamed important politician. As the Beautiful rebuffs his advances, he fatally shoots her. Maria, along with other prisoners, witnesses the murder, but is the only one willing to testify. An important bureaucrat identified as the “Boss” (nachal’nitsa; played by Tat’iana Dogileva) comes to investigate and threatens to expose the prison’s corruption if the matter concerning the important nephew isn’t hushed up properly.

zhgiThe turn from believe-in-your-dreams Hollywood musical melodrama to Gogol is swift and merciless. The Boss is really a Gogolian Inspector General, who sends prison officials into a frenzy of activity. She apparently loves Alevtina’s voice and demands a concert if things were to be patched up. After some hand-wringing Alevtina agrees, encouraged by Maria and blackmailed by her boss, whose neck is on the line because he stole lots and lots of state money. She performs the aria to everyone’s complete delight. It seems that things are looking great for our heroines: Alevtina is headed to Moscow and Maria is promised a pardon to hush her from speaking against the important nephew. The corrupt prison head Ivanych (played by Vladimir Il’in) gets to keep his job. The beautiful girl is dead, but everyone forgets about her quickly. Alevtina explains to Maria that, even if prosecution were to take place, the important nephew would only get probation, and it’s important to be quiet about these matters if she wants to survive in prison. Eventually, Alevtina triumphs in Moscow, moving to the second round of the show. Maria, meanwhile, instead of being released, is trapped by the Boss and coerced to teach her daughter to sing. Sensing betrayal, Maria takes hostage the woman, her daughter and the two guards implicated in the fatal shooting. The film reaches its apex when Alevtina, instead of performing for her second round, addresses Maria on live television, convincing her to let everyone go and promising to protect her. Alevtina sacrifices her singing career, the TV audience goes wild, the hostages go free, and Maria is shot in a SWAT team raid. She bleeds out in a final parallel montage that alternates between the jubilant TV studio where everyone rejoices with Alevtina, the heroine, and the storming of the apartment with the hostages. The film cuts to black: the end. Then, the credit sequence rolls as we see Alevtina, Maria, prison officials and guards, including the “Jerk” and other principal actors, gleefully skipping and dancing along the streets to an upbeat song about believing in yourself and your dreams. This is the moment that bore Kinotavr controversy: what is the film trying to say when it whimsically makes the victims and the torturers dance to a dreams-come-true song? Viktor Matizen (2017), who started this critical discussion, called the film “nauseating” (“toshnotvornyi”). Anton Dolin (2017) compares Light Up! to Sergei Loznitsa’s feature A Gentle Creature (Krotkaia, 2017) and points out the monstrosity of prison as a place where state violence is seen in its pure, inhumane form. Natal’ia Sirivlia (2017) emphasizes that the film offers a “shining TV paradise” (“siiaiushchii telerai”). An alternative to the horrors of prison, this consumer paradise of reality TV foregrounds happy collective amnesia. Kirill Pletnev, the filmmaker, offended by the questions at the Kinotavr press conference, called the title sequence a gesture of breaking the fourth wall, the final bow of the actors. In his comments given to TASS correspondent Mariia Tokmasheva, he cites Slumdog Millionaire (Danny Boyle 2008) or Dead Poets Society (Peter Weir 1989) as examples when sadness and triumph come hand in hand in melodrama. The film, insists the director, is really about believing in oneself, pursuing one’s dreams, it is not “chernukha” (cited in Tokmasheva 2016).

zhgiIt could well be true that the intentions behind the film were to make it about a girl with a great voice who needed a little womanly camaraderie and a mani-pedi to fulfill her destiny. The problem with Light Up! resides not just in its final credit sequence, but in its ethics of representation. The problem is the blithe obliviousness with which the film deploys the corrupt, dehumanizing, and exceptionally cruel environment of the prison as a backdrop to what is essentially a variation on the Pitch Perfect franchise narrative. It is no coincidence that most of the characters in the film are referred to by their nicknames in the credits, stripped of their real names and identity. The dynamic between victims and executioners, those with all the power and those with none, is out there for everyone to see at all times. Prisoners are beaten, harassed, and abused systematically, regularly and casually. Violence is normalized while the viewer is expected to focus instead on the clichéd narrative of believing in oneself and climbing to the top of a reality TV competition. Only when Maria is lifted to the status of purveyor of beauty does Alevtina stop abusing her as she does the other prisoners. For example, upon arriving to prison Maria talks back to Alevtina, insisting that her disability (she is lame) requires help. In response Alevtina throws her on the ground and beats her with a baton, allowing the ubiquitous sadistic guards to kick her with their feet. Neither a mani-pedi, nor the beauty of classical opera can fix the barrage of everyday violence in the film.

zhgiInterestingly, we actually never hear Alevtina complete the aria; we hear snippets of it throughout to maintain the suspense before her televised performance, which she never completes. As is to be expected in melodrama, Alevtina’s virtue triumphs but her dreams remain decoupled from reality; her song remains unsung. In addition, the film uses intense color filters whenever Alevtina sings: the background of the shot gets blurry, peppered with lights, as a deep blue filter accompanies Alevtina’s first karaoke singing. A red filter is used during her “feminine” phase, mostly in rehearsals with Maria, and finally the TV show setting uses a heavy pink filter. The poster for the film uses an image of Maria that is heavily edited in blue and red colors. The leading actress, Inga Oboldina, in the same controversial press conference (Kinotavr 2017) called the film a “penitentiary fairy tale” (“kolonial’naia skazka”). Alevtina’s singing, meant to signify the transcendent power of art, takes the appearance of strangely colored dreams, deliberately unreal, a fairy tale inserted in otherwise bleak landscape of the prison and the adjacent town. It is perhaps telling that the only way to recognize the film as a fairy tale, or as the director calls it, a “populist and bright cinema” (“narodnoe, iarkoe kino”; in Tokmasheva 2016), is to blur the world of the film into a background that is a whirlwind of color, light and sound, or to literally expunge the real out of the frame. This naive longing for the fairy tale paradoxically co-exists on the screen with the normalization of violence and lack of ethical awareness about this normalization. In the end, undone by its own hand, the film is unable to reconcile its contradictions, just as its heroine is unable to finish her song.

Volha Isakavaz
Central Washington University

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Works Cited

Dolin, Anton. 2017. “‘Zhgi!’: Vykhodit eshche odin fil’m o zhenshchine i tiur’me (polse ‘Krotkoi’ Loznitsy).” Meduza 8 December.

Matizen, Viktor. 2017. Press Conference Kinotavr, 13 June.

Sirivlia, Natal’ia. 2017. “Kolonial’naia skazka. ‘Zhgi!’, rezhisser Kirill Pletnev.” Iskusstvo kino 5-6.

Stupnikov, Denis. 2017. “V poiskakh novoi Alloi Pugachevoi***.” InterMedia 6 December.

Tokmasheva, Mariia. 2016. “Akter Kirill Pletnev debiutiruet v kachestve rezhissera polnometrazhnogo fil’ma.” TASS 14 November.

Light Up!, Russia, 2017
Color, 97 mins
Director: Kirill Pletnev
Script: Kirill Pletnev
DoP: Sergei Mikhal’chuk
Production Design: Irina Grazhdankina
Sound: Artem Mikhaenkin
Editing: Vlad Kaptur
Casting: Kirill Pletmev, Alla Eremycheva
Cast: Inga Oboldina,Viktoriia Isakova, Vladimir Il’in, Anna Ukolova, Aleksei Shevchenkov, Tat’iana Dolina, Danil Steklov, Nikita Kologrivyi, Ekaterina Ageeva, Aleksandra Bortich, Veronika Kuznetsova, Ol’ga Buzova (as herself)
Producers: Ruben Dishdishian, Vladimir Goriainov, Pavel Odynin, Kirill Pletnev
Production: Mars Media Entertainment, Sputnik

Kirill Pletnev: Light Up! (Zhgi!, 2017)

reviewed by Volha Isakava © 2018

Updated: 2018